It may not be the fastest race, but the Lions Club Annual Turtle Derby is reportedly the longest-running fundraiser in the history of Kingsport. For 73 years, turtles have taken their places in the ‘fast lane’ in a race to improve vision for many in the Tri-Cities area. The hard-shelled participants may be slow, but their valiant efforts help raise nearly $9,000 a year.
On May 19, turtles will once again be racing to the finish line to make a difference.
While the Lions Clubs International has long been associated with vision care, the non-profit service organization has a much broader vision for its role in the Tri-Cities area and across the world. Other services that are in their sights include diabetes testing and pediatric cancer support, while still continuing to live up to their title of “Knights of the Blind” by improving eye health and providing eyeglasses for those with special vision needs.
To many people in need, the Lions truly have been ‘knights in shining armor.’ Founded in 1917, the organization continues to meet the needs of communities on a local and global scale. One of the services provided by the Kingsport Lions is vision screening for the Kingsport City Schools, Sullivan County Schools and local day care centers. An autorefractor machine, purchased by the club, gives more accurate readings for children than the old ‘eye chart’ method.
“We have screened special needs students and children as young as six months old,” said Lee Bryan, club president. Lee, a retired teacher of the blind and visually impaired in Sullivan County Schools, is a natural fit for the Lions. Because of her lifetime commitment to helping the visually impaired, her passion and vision is to lead the club into even more service opportunities.
“I want to see our club continue to expand our vision efforts to Sullivan County Schools and additional day cares in the outlying areas of Kingsport,” she said.
Blountville resident Mackenzie Browder expressed her gratitude to the Kingsport Lions. Her 2-year-old daughter, Layla, was unable to see well from the time she was six months old. Since her insurance would not cover the total cost of special glasses, the Lions provided the balance. “They were a tremendous help,” said Mackenzie. The glasses even had to be changed a second time, which the Lions also covered.
The Kingsport Lions Club gives financial support to organizations such as the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, Second Harvest Food Bank, First Book, Mountain Region Speech and Hearing Center, Roosevelt Elementary School and the Boys and Girls Club of Kingsport. They recently voted to donate $5,000 to help build a new playground castle at Johnson Elementary School. At Warriors’ Path State Park, the Lions Narnia Braille Trail on the Boundless Playground was donated by the Lions, along with a water fountain and several benches in the park.
“We serve in so many ways,” said Keltie Kerney, the club's communications chairman.
The Lions’ newest initiative involves diabetes testing through the Appalachian Miles for Smiles mobile dental unit launched by Friends in Need Health Center in Kingsport.
“We will have people there to do a diabetes risk assessment, and have purchased a $4,000 A1C machine to do on-the-spot screening on the van,” Lee explained.
The Lions Clubs International will soon be taking on pediatric cancer as well by exploring ways to support families of affected children and the young patients at the St. Jude affiliate clinic at Niswonger Children’s Hospital in Johnson City.
A golf fundraiser, which raises around $12,000 yearly, is held in September. However, the spring turtle derby fundraiser is no doubt the most entertaining and unique. This year, the fun event will be held on Saturday, May 19 at 10 a.m. at Dobyns-Bennett High School. Admission is free and there will be door prizes such as free pizzas, restaurant gift cards, sunglasses and a boy’s and girl’s bicycle.
Individuals and businesses may sponsor turtles for $50 apiece. The deadline to sign up to sponsor a turtle is May 9.
The Kingsport Lions currently face the same challenges as other service clubs across the country. “New members have been difficult to find. We need more people to help carry on some of the things that we are doing,” said Lee. Her dream is to have more involvement with local clubs and schools, more diabetes education in the schools and a program providing hearings aids. “These dreams can only come true with additional hands and funding. Won’t you consider joining us?” she asked.
To join the race for greater vision, whether by sponsoring a turtle for the turtle derby or by joining the club, call Lee Bryan at (423) 239-9172 or email [email protected] The club meets at Giuseppe’s Italian Restaurant in Kingsport every second Tuesday at 5:45 p.m. and every fourth Tuesday at 11:45 a.m.