Kiwanis clubs find that creatures of all kinds present ways to raise funds and serve kids.
Story by Tony Knoderer
“Never work with children or animals,” the great film comedian W.C. Fields once advised his fellow actors. But he wasn’t a Kiwanian — and this isn’t showbiz. This is the Kiwanis family.
Unlike curmudgeons such as Fields, Kiwanis clubs often find kids and animals to be a perfect pairing. They’re cute. They make us happy. They make each other happy. And they often need support from people who care.
For years, various Kiwanis clubs have turned this natural combination into a winning formula. From fundraisers to projects and partnerships, members have drawn on people’s love for animals to change children’s lives.
Even in the past year and a half, with the restrictions and ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic, the attraction of animal-related events has remained as strong as ever. Here are a few clubs that have maintained traditions — and started new ones — by making kids and animals alike a key part of the work they do in their communities.
Last September, the Foothills Kiwanis Club of Boulder Valley, Colorado, converted pet owners’ pride into nearly US$20,000 for its projects and partnerships. In fact, the Coolest Dog on the Front Range contest was a testament to the power of collaboration. Help came from pet owners, sponsors and a local brewery — not to mention an Ohio Kiwanis club that helped make it all possible.
To enter the contest, people sent photos of their dogs with a brief explanation of why theirs was the coolest. After a six-week voting period, seven winners were announced — with the “Top Dog” professionally photographed and featured on the front label of a beer brewed by Mash Lab Brewing in Windsor, Colorado. The winner’s owner even got to name the beer.
It all started, says Bob Mohling, the event’s committee chair, when club members saw a successful “coolest dog” fundraiser run by the Kiwanis Club of Columbus, Ohio.
“We had been doing golf tournaments for many years,” Mohling says. “It seemed like everyone was turning to golf tournaments, and we wanted to do something a little different. We contacted (the Columbus club) and they were gracious enough to send a packet that they had used. We tailored that to our club.”
The contest is a lot of work, he adds, but that helps engage the whole club. In addition to social media promotion, for example, members drop off flyers with pet groomers, veterinarians and animal hospitals.
Mash Lab Brewing is also “a great partner,” Mohling says. “They advertise for us at their brewery and do a lot on social media. We’ve gotten a large group of entries from Windsor, which is 30 miles from our club.”
The brewery even donated 35 cases of beer, to be given to the winning owners and bought by the contest’s other local sponsors — boosting fundraising even further. Among the many partners who receive those funds is Alert Service Dogs for Kids, which provides “alert” dogs to kids who have Type 1 diabetes or severe allergies.
“The voting brings in the preponderance of funds,” Mohling says, “but we find we can get sponsors to provide funds too. A car dealer, a carpet shop — everybody loves to be involved with dogs.”
A hands-on tradition
In Ontario, Canada, the Seaway Kiwanis Club of Sarnia-Lambton had been around for five years when it opened an animal farm and petting zoo in 1964. What began as a partnership with the city of Sarnia soon grew into an area destination spot — and a long-lasting boost to the Kiwanis name throughout the area.
“I don’t think (the Kiwanis members) realized what a treasure they had given to the city,” says club member Donna Kelso, a past club president and current member of the animal farm’s governance committee.
Today the Sarnia Animal Farm is a three-way partnership between the club, the city and the Humane Society, which has handled the care of the animals for the past five years. The Seaway Kiwanis club handles expenses and upkeep, says Kelso. Along with club events, the Sarnia Children’s Farm Foundation helps raise the funds that keep the farm accessible to everyone.
“It started free, and it continues to be free,” Kelso says.
It’s also open year-round. With thousands of visitors every year, it isn’t unusual to see a busload of kids arrive on any given day. But like many public spaces, the farm felt the pinch of the pandemic in 2020. When restrictions eased a bit last fall, 100 people were allowed on the premises at a time. Renewing the connection between animals and people proved to be good for visiting kids — and for the Kiwanians who volunteered onsite to serve as gatekeepers and explain the guidelines.
“The lineup on the first day was huge,” Kelso says. “They were so eager to see the animals again. It was one of the best experiences I ever had.”
In fact, those experiences help make Kiwanis family membership attractive to the community. The Seaway club’s sponsorship of a virtual Key Club results in summertime work opportunities for high school students — one of whom, Kelso says, ended up as an employee at the farm.
The Kiwanis club itself has inducted 11 members since October alone. “As soon as you talk about the farm, they’re in,” Kelso says.
Pets to the rescue
Like so many clubs, the Lima, Ohio, Kiwanis Club found itself making some unexpected changes to its 2020 calendar of events. For instance, the club’s 5K walk/run in October, which supports the club’s sponsored Service Leadership Programs, became a virtual event because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
And with it went a recent additional feature of the day: the club’s pet parade and contest.
The parade and contest started — or more accurately, restarted — in 2019, says Crystal Miller, who chairs the event committee. When the club discussed supplementing the walk/run’s fundraising and sponsorship opportunities, a fellow member, Bob Day, suggested adding the animal-friendly feature.
“Bob brought up the fact that in the past we had had a pet contest that was really successful,” Miller says. “And we realized, well, it is around Halloween.”
In 2020, the Saturday event was on the very day: October 31. Perfect for an animal tie-in that included a pet costume option.
Then the pandemic intruded. So the Howl o’Ween Trick or Trot went virtual. And that turned out to be a benefit to the pet-contest portion of the day: people could send in photos of their pets, and others voted online. The contest consisted of Cute Pet and Costumed Pet categories.
“It seemed to flow better when we did it online,” Miller says.
While the winners got prizes, local animal-rescue organizations — including the Allen County Humane Society — got needed funds at a time when resources were scarce. The club’s reborn tradition will continue this October, when the contest continues as a supplement to the walk/run, which will try again as an in-person event on October 31.
A new vehicle for a classic event
For Kiwanis clubs, there’s more than one way to do pet parades and contests. And there’s more than one way to adjust when a pandemic takes away your club’s traditional format.
In Los Altos, California, the Kiwanis club’s annual pet parade is a major civic event. It started in 1948 — and each year after that, it sent families and pets marching down Main Street on the Saturday after Mother’s Day.
Until 2020. Last year, the Los Altos Kiwanis Club made do, splicing together people’s homemade videos of local pets into a single video that was then posted on the club’s Facebook page.
This year, of course, COVID-19 was still around — but vaccinations and the easing of restrictions allowed the event to get outside again, with modifications.
This May, for instance, parade participants used their vehicles. That is, they either drove with their pet or pets inside with them or they made the vehicle itself the star: Participants had the option of “dressing” their autos as their pet or a favorite animal.
It was a way of putting in-person fun back into the event while keeping people healthy, says Elizabeth Ward, the club’s vice president. In fact, “The Healing Power of Pets” was this year’s theme.
The club arranged with a local TV station to help stream the event live on Facebook, with participants stopping at a designated intersection to talk with a pair of local hosts. There was even a contest for the decorated vehicles, with judges doing their work in a nearby parking lot.
The parade reflected the pandemic’s effect — and the community’s response — in other ways. The club approached the local El Camino Hospital and allowed them to suggest this year’s marshals. The hospital’s choice, Mel and Mady Kahn, longtime volunteers and donors to the hospital, rode with their two adopted dogs in an antique fire engine.
In general, the concepts of resilience and support were more apt than ever. And the role of pets was never more fitting.
“It’s amazing, the number of (animal) adoptions there have been during the pandemic,” Ward says. “In a scary time, we turn to what gives us a sense of comfort and home.”
Hearts and hoofs
Clubs in Kiwanis Youth Programs have also found ways to serve others through animals. During the 2018-19 school year, for instance, Builders Club members in Taylorville, Illinois, raised money for a local organization that uses miniature horses for therapy.
The partnership with Heartland Hoofs resulted in more than US$2,000 for feed, hay, grooming items and more. The club even accompanied the horses on a visit to a nursing home, bringing homemade valentines to residents.
Supporting a shelter
Animals need support too. That’s what makes partnerships between Kiwanis clubs and animal shelters a natural connection.
In March, the Kiwanis Club of Tysons, Virginia, helped its local shelter with a quick, fun project: Members got together on Zoom for a virtual toy-making project for animals. Joined by the Kiwanis Capital Legacy e-Club, Kiwanians made dog toys, rabbit toys and comfort blankets for donation.
The Tysons club then posted some of the results on its Facebook page, along with links to instructions and supplies for anyone wanting to try the project themselves. K
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This story originally appeared in the August 2021 issue of Kiwanis magazine.