Gadsden Civitan Club celebrates 100th Anniversary

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Pictured, from left, Gadsden Civitan Club President-Elect Randy Lively, former Civitan President Bob Walden, current Civitan President Sammie Hawkins, Civitan member Bill Rich, Etowah County Commissioner Jamie Grant and District 10 State Senator Andrew Jones celebrate Gadsden Civitan Club’s 100th Anniversary of service to its community.

By Katie Bohannon, News Editor

The Gadsden branch of an Alabama-rooted service organization forged in the heart of The Magic City just celebrated its 100th Anniversary.

Established from the collective efforts of a group of Birmingham business leaders in 1917, Civitan International’s Gadsden chapter embodies the unwavering mantra that sparked a centennial of compassion, fellowship and volunteerism with the purpose of inspiring and influencing lives for the better.

The Gadsden Civitan Club hosted a 100th Anniversary Celebration Wednesday, July 14, reflecting on its establishment as the 33rd Civitan Club. Since its inception in July of 1921, Gadsden’s Civitan chapter upheld the core values upon which Civitan International built a foundation of service and goodwill.

Gadsden members share a lineage of Civitans who adopt and practice The Golden Rule, treating others as they wish to be treated. Through an emphasis on empathy and an understanding the vast perspectives and circumstances that inhabit the world, Civitans create generations of noble citizens who recognize and treasure the differences of others, uplifting their neighbors and encouraging them to succeed.

“The Gadsden Civitan Club’s 100 years is a rare feat,” said Civitan International Executive Vice President Scarlet Thompson, who attended Gadsden’s celebration. “This club was one of the first forty built in the United States by Civitan during a time of uncertainty. World War I had just ended, and the Great Depression was a few years away. Members have worked hard over the last century to keep fulfilling the needs of the community, as well as to support their club in its longevity. The time we are in now is very similar to the time in which this club was founded – and it’s still standing! We are thrilled to celebrate this milestone with the club.”

Civitan Interntaional’s mission drew Thompson to the organization, which emphasizes the advocacy of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Following Baltimore Civitans campaign during the 1940s to raise funding and awareness for special educators in honor of Tommy McNulty, who was born with Down syndrome, Civitan adopted service to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilites as its principal emphasis in 1956.

Furthermore, an interdisciplinary center studying the development of the mind and brain manifested in The Civitan International Research Center on the University of Alabama at Birmingham campus. The center strives to improve the quality of life and overall wellness of both individuals and families affected by intellectual and developmental disabilities, working to: “expand its knowledge about human development and developmental disabilities through basic and applied research; provide interdisciplinary clinical and research training in developmental disabilities; use this knowledge to develop and provide high quality, exemplary services and programs and exchange information in a timely way with consumers, practitioners, scientists and society.”

“I am the mother of someone with autism, and I love how [my position with Civitan] combines my professional passion with my personal one,” said Thompson, referring to The Civitan International Research Center. “Civitan International has funded the research center at UAB for three decades, where therapies and treatments are being studied for people like my son. That’s something in which you want to be a part.”

Among those present at the celebration was member Jerry Reaves, who proved instrumental in the club’s Snellgrove Civitan Center in Gadsden. During the 1950s, a lack of educational facilities for children with intellectual and developmental disabilities inspired a school that cultivated a positive learning environment for these students, while nurturing continuous love, encouragement and support – the Snellgrove Civitan Center. The Center’s curriculum of basic reading, science, math, spelling, sentence structure and writing coincides with the extra-curricular opportunities it offers students, complete with interactive field trips and exercise programs.

“Civitans serve their communities and put others before themselves,” said Thompson. “Especially in a time where we face a pandemic and other challengers, the world needs people who want to change lives for the better. Civitans work diligently to help those with intellectual and developmental disabilities reach their potential, like making communities more accessible and inclusive. The Gadsden Civitan Club is an excellent example of that focus, and it has supported [Snellgrove] that serves people with I/DD for decades.”

Reaves shared that thanks to the Snellgrove Civitan Center’s success, an offshoot of the program manifested in H.O.P.E., Inc. Established in 1992 as a certified provider through the Alabama Department of Mental Health, with the purpose of providing a community environment with residential habilitative services for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, the nonprofit organization began with one home in Etowah County. Since its inception, H.O.P.E., Inc. homes expanded into eight different residential properties, serving 20 individuals.

Retired Coca-Cola drink manager Bill Rich’s involvement with Gadsden Civitans spans over 50 years, participating in fundraisers and discovering a reoccurring aspect of the club that its members appreciate immensely – fellowship. Rich said that throughout his decades with Gadsden Civitans, the lesson he found most profound resided with friendship and family. Just as Civitans prove lively forces evoking positive change in their communities, Rich attested to the importance of supportive friends and family as an active presence in his personal life.

Former Gadsden Civitan Club President Dr. Bob Walden reiterated Rich’s emphasis on fellowship, reflecting on how his desire to connect with others inspired him to join. Since his initial introduction to the club in Montgomery during the early 1970s, Walden’s participation expanded far beyond the state capitol. As a Civitan, Walden has traveled to 36 countries, exploring and learning from different cultures and meeting people from diverse walks of life, witnessing how individuals united with a collective passion can spark transformation.

“I’ve learned that Civitans throughout the world have one purpose, and that’s helping people,” said Walden. “Anywhere you travel, you see the same things – people doing projects to improve the community. I joined just to get to know people, and I’d say I’ve gotten to know people.”

While serving as the executive director for a nonprofit organization in East Tennessee, Current Gadsden Civitan Club President Sammie Hawkins discovered a passion for Civitan that remains kindled. As a mother, Hawkins implemented Civitans values into her children’s lives, as they grew up attending conferences and events with her, gaining a deeper understanding of humanity and a greater appreciation for all.

“My philosophy is we’re more alike than we are different,” said Hawkins. “The whole idea of Civitan inspired me to be able to help others that really deserve support in the community, so that they understand how special they are. Working with people with disabilities, it’s such a blessing. It’s very important to have an appreciation for everybody – they deserve love and respect, and to be treated with dignity.”

Though adult Civitans experience the rewarding nature of the organization, local students were recognized during the celebration for their involvement in Civitan’s longest standing youth program – Junior Civitan International. Through Junior Civitan, students gain opportunities for personal and professional growth, improving their communities while developing leadership skills, confidence and empathy in their conscientious dedication to a greater purpose.

Glencoe Middle School and Glencoe High School Junior Civitan sponsors Alison Roberts and Karen Cothran were honored for their service, while Glencoe High School Valedictorian Taylor Holder and Wilson Roberts were awarded second place in the Civitan essay contest. Glencoe High’s Katie Giles and Christopher Holder were recognized as first place winners.

Several prominent figures throughout the community joined Thompson and Civitan leaders at the event, extending their support for the club and its endeavors. Vice President of The Chamber of Gadsden and Etowah County Will Mackey expressed his admiration for the club’s longevity and extensive influence in the community, while District 10 Senator Andrew Jones presented both a congratulatory resolution from the Alabama Senate and a proclamation from Governor Kay Ivey, commending the Gadsden Civitan Club for its service to the state. Gadsden City Council President Dr. Cynthia Toles and Etowah County Commission President Jamie Grant represented their collective council members and commissioners in recognizing The City of Champions club for era upon era of endless diligence. 

“The key word in all of this is service,” said Toles. “That service is helping other people and sharing. I didn’t realize Civitans focus on [assisting] the mentally challenged; that is a big thing today because there are so many areas where they can help. Service is very key in any organization. That’s the reason so many last such a long time, because they’re out there helping and paying it forward.”

“A group that lasts 100 years, they have to have a great heart and beautiful souls,” said Grant. “The importance of Civitans is shown by their programs, what they do in the community and throughout the state – it’s miraculous. It’s amazing what an organization like that can achieve.”

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