In 1969, the town of St. Albert was barely scratching over a population of 10,000. There was already a Lions Club in town that met during the evenings but a few of those members recognized that it was big enough to branch out. The Breakfast Lions Club was born, and its members haven’t stopped rolling up their sleeves and taking action to serve the people of the city, starting first thing in the morning.
“The Lions at that time, we had a lot of members. I think it was around 70 to 75 members. We were a huge club. There were some of the members that wanted to actually have a breakfast of instead of dinner. That's why I joined the Breakfast Club. I was a businessman at that time. ‘I should be in The Breakfast Club,' ” recalled Vince Ratchinsky, one of the charter members of the St. Albert Breakfast Lions, admitting that he always enjoyed being an early riser.
The idea was not just to break up a bigger club to make regular meetings more manageable. Getting an earlier start also means that you accomplish more during the day, and the year, he confirmed.
He and Dr. William D. Cuts left the Host Lions Club, with approximately 20 others, to head up the Breakfast Club, a service club that has remained just as strong in its membership as well as its civic duty to serve others.
In the 50 years since, Ratchinsky has been proud to be involved with the club’s many fundraising and community-building activities, some of which are no longer around:
• the St. Albert Winter Carnival, known to many simply as Avalanche;
• the bandshell that was once located in Lions Park (NB: the park was established by the St. Albert Host Lions Club, not the Breakfast Lions);
• the fountain at St. Albert Place;
• projects with the St. Albert Seniors’ Association, Chateau Mission Court, the Youville Home, and the Sturgeon Community Hospital;
• assistance to various sports and recreational teams including St. Albert Lacrosse, St. Albert Minor Hockey, and St. Albert Ringette Associations;
• sponsoring family and community events such as the Lions Family Fishing Derby;
• sponsoring family and community groups such as St. Albert Beavers and Scouts;
• supporting Lions Quest, a “centre for positive youth development with an approach to promoting healthy well-being for youth”;
• sponsoring the St. Albert Transit Handibus;
• playgrounds for schools and neighbourhoods across the city, most recently including the playground rebuild along the Red Willow trails near the apartment complex on Rivercrest Crescent; and
• many, many other initiatives that are too numerous to mention. The Breakfast Lions Club supports high school scholarships and various charitable and community organizations on an ongoing basis.
Ratchinsky still has a button from Avalanche ’77, the St. Albert Winter Carnival that the Lions sponsored. He still has fond memories of the event, especially of the dogsled races. It was a harsh winter, though, so not all of his memories are fond.
“These racers came from the Northwest Territories with a bunch of dogs. We had built a trail actually from Lions Park all the way around Big Lake. I always remember that because of the fact that we used to have to stand out in the middle of the lake to make sure that the dogs didn't take a shortcut across the lake. I’ll tell you it was cold. I remember that part of the project.”
That playground rebuild along Red Willow Trails last year was actually a Centennial Project for the 100th anniversary of Lions Club International. The city asked the club to spearhead the project. Its members are currently brainstorming ideas for a new Centennial Project to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Lions Clubs in Canada. After that, I guess that the St. Albert Breakfast Lions Club will go on to the long-term planning in advance of its own centennial of service to the community in 2069.
A place for friends and community
Leo “the Lion” Bruseker and Paul Benson were friends as administrators of different city schools for years before they became friends in the club.
“In fact, I recruited him to join the club,” Bruseker said, adding a friendly joke. “We were the sponsors of the 4th St. Albert Scout group. I went to the group meetings and I said that this guy would be an excellent Lion. So I worked on him for two or three years.”
Benson brushed off the ribbing, noting how much he enjoys the opportunity to give back to the community. He saw firsthand the impact of how Lions help out where it’s needed because of that very Scout sponsorship.
“It started out in Scouts because my kid was a Scout, starting as a Beaver. It's just something that you get to know people in the community,” he explained, remembering how much he saw of the Lions experience before he became a member.
“Some of it, yes, but not nearly as much as I now know. When I first joined, they just finished putting the roof back on the seniors’ centre.”
Many will recall how the roof of the St. Albert Seniors’ Centre (now called the St. Albert Seniors Association) collapsed under the weight of too much snow in February 1999.
It’s doing that kind of work and helping to fix those kinds of problems that make these two friends proud to be called Lions.
“For the first several years, we gave most of the vast majority of the proceeds from the money we made to St. Albert Victim Services. I thought that was really cool. This is a really terrific organization. This is something I'm most proud of,” Bruseker said. “I'm really proud of these guys. I'm ... very proud for a number of years to be a member of Lions Club International.”
Benson seconded that motion.
“I worked on the road: here, there and everywhere. I wanted to be more connected with the city and the people to find out what's going on. You go in and see a couple of breakfast meetings and the people that were running it and the organization. All of a sudden you go, ‘I'd like to be associated with these people.’ It's these people that seem to do it right. They seem to be connected.”
Up at the crack of dawn, or close to it
The Breakfast Lions meet every second and fourth Tuesday of each month. Those meetings now start at 7:30 a.m. though they used to start at 6:45 a.m.
“We just changed the meeting a little bit because most of those guys now in the club are retired members,” Ratchinsky said.
While that sounds good for those who like to catch a few more winks, it does imply the pernicious problem that plagues many service clubs: attrition. The club is still approximately the same size as it was in the beginning – around 20 members – though it did have a period of higher interest and an expanding roster.
Currently, there is not much growth in terms of new members, especially younger members.
“We do have a hard time getting new members. We still have a very active club,” he continued, noting that signing up one new younger member would be fine but getting a handful on board would be ideal.
Maybe there’s something about serving the community that serves yourself as well. At 86, Ratchinsky is still an active member who is in attendance at regular meetings. Is it possible that being a Lion improves your longevity and your enjoyment of life as well?
“Well, maybe,” he postulated. “I have always enjoyed the Lions because you get a bunch of guys together and a lot of friends come from that.”
To mark the club’s 50th anniversary, the St. Albert Breakfast Lions are having a special meeting in the form of a champagne breakfast that will be held this weekend. Members past and present as well as any interested community members are invited to join the celebration. The event will start at 9:30 a.m on Sunday, Sept. 29 at the St. Albert Inn, 156 St. Albert Trail. For information or tickets ($32 each) please email [email protected]. You can also call current president Neil Meachem at 780-458-7135.