In 1956, Civitan officially dedicated itself to the cause of serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The decision transformed the mission of the organization and inspired service to the Special Olympics, The Children’s Miracle Network, and ultimately the creation of the Civitan International Research Center.
Another milestone in the history of Civitan was the creation of inclusive clubs—clubs comprised of and led by members with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The first two inclusive clubs, the Phoenix Bird Civitan Club and the Phil Schlesinger Civitan Club, were chartered months apart in 1979 and 1980, respectively.
The Phoenix Bird Civitan Club was the idea of Joyce Ridge who used her experience as a Civitan, and her professional training as an advocate for people with disabilities, to start the club. The new club chartered in 1979 and immediately set to work with community projects including painting the house of a widow in their community and organizing a walk-a-thon to raise funds. Many of the members came from housing communities established in Phoenix, Arizona for citizens with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
A few months later, Phil Schlesinger, of the Roadrunner Civitan Club in Tuscon, Arizona, learned of the new club in Phoenix and proposed sponsoring a similar club in Tuscon. Despite early skepticism from some members of their communities, both inclusive clubs enthusiastically moved forward.
“A lot of people doubted it would work,” said Lyn Barefoot. “But we have now probably been active longer than most current clubs.” Barefoot is the club facilitator for the Phil Schlesinger club, where her son Ian is also a member.
When Civitan members are asked to tell their story, they often cite fellowship with one another and service to others as the ties that bind clubs together. The desire to serve others—a servant’s heart—is a uniting force within the organization. Members of Civitan’s first two inclusive clubs echo the sentiment and attribute their success and longevity to these two simple truths.
“Our Civitan group is all about working together and helping each other and most of all fellowship,” says Lantz Kleckner. “Civitan is all about being a great role model and serving each other in our community.” Kleckner serves as secretary for the Phoenix Birds.
“My other favorite part of being a Civitan is learning how to work with others and I always participate in everything,” he says. The Phoenix Bird Civitan Club chartered with 36 members and presently has 39 active members.
“Our members tend to join and stay for life,” added Barefoot. “Many of the members met in school, at Sahauro High School, and the club allows them to stay in touch and remain social with each other.” The Phil Schlesinger Club has members ranging in age from 87 years old to the youngest, who is 43. Currently, the club has 30 members.
Inclusive clubs offer members an opportunity to build self-confidence, to take on leadership roles and responsibilities and a social network that can be difficult to find for many members otherwise.
“We used to go to summer camp each year,” says Barefoot, “but our members wanted to do something different to get more involved in Civitan. When Mark Eisinger was campaigning for International President, he spoke at our club and asked for our support.”
The club voted to skip camp and pool their money and go to the convention that year, which was a cruise convention leaving out of New York. They even had t-shirts made to support Eisinger that read “PS4ME” which stands for Phil Schlesinger for Mark Eisinger. Eisinger won the election that year and the club has made it a point to attend almost every convention since.
Both clubs are very active in Civitan, attending district meetings and the international conventions whenever possible—including the most recent convention in Reno, Nevada. Both clubs remain very active in their communities also.
The Phoenix Birds organize an annual Walk-a-thon in the fall and a Civitan Boutique as fundraisers for the club. They also participate in service projects such as building ramps for people with wheelchairs, according to Kleckner.
“The members choose their own programs,” says Max McQueen, long-time facilitator of the club. “They also pick three nonprofits to donate to with the money they raise. A lot of people hear our name and think we are a group of bird watchers but we are named after the bird that rises up out of the ashes.”
The mythical bird is an inspiration to the club. It is a symbol of longevity and renewal. Ridge was made a Civitan Research Fellow in 2010 and the home she founded for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities was renamed The Joyce Ridge Civitan House in 2009. She passed away in 2013.
The Phil Schlesinger club, known as “PS” among the members, also conducts a walk-a-thon and has recently added a bowling team and a bowl-a-thon event to their schedule. Members are also very active in events for Special Olympics and assist with the Bocce competition for the state games. Club members sponsor local kindergarten classes by providing school supplies in the Fall and gift cards at Christmas for families in need of assistance.
Inclusive clubs have become an integral part of the larger Civitan organization and their dedication to fellowship and service should be an inspiration for members everywhere.
“The reason why I love being a Civitan,” says Kleckner, “is because it’s like having another family.”