When Ignace Fransman stood before the Lions Club annual assembly in Belgium on December 12 to advocate for support, it was the culmination of years of partnership and a welcome relief for a Healthy Athletes program struggling with funding issues.
A Special Olympics athlete from Belgium is screened at the country's national games in May 2009. Healthy Athletes would not have been at the games at all if it weren't for the Lions Clubs in Belgium.
The vote was unanimous in favor of providing a 25,000 Euro donation for Healthy Athletes for the May 2010 national games in Brussels. But the story of the donation begins in September 2008 when Special Olympics Belgium faced significant cuts in both private company and government funding and decided to eliminate for one year all programs not directly associated with sports.
“My first reaction was one of understanding of the situation,” Fransman said, “but the second was a feeling of regret --the regret of not being able to organize a great program and the regret of letting down a lot of athletes.”
Fransman had been a Lion since January 2005, so he knew better than anyone the connection between Lions and Healthy Athletes and thought his local club might be able to help.
“I spoke on the issue in my Lions Club, and there was a general indignation that the program couldn’t be organized. So, my club decided to dig into the reserves and donate 3,500 Euros,” he said. In addition to the donation, the club set a goal to raise 10,000 more, so Healthy Athletes could be offered at the 2009 national games in Belgium.
To meet this goal, Fransman worked with some other Lions and wrote to all Lions district governors and Lions Council Chairman Elien Van Dille. When Van Dille heard of the challenges facing Healthy Athletes, he took immediate action.
“I organized a meeting in January 2009 with Ignace, and also invited Past Council Chairman Ferdy Libert and their District Governor elect D112-B Stefaan Willems,” Van Dille said. “Ignace made a perfect roundup of the overall organization of the Healthy Athletes Program, the budget, the funding problems and the delicate decision to scale back the activities for 2009. As our budgets were already fixed, our mission was to motivate both Lions Clubs individually and the four Belgian Lions Districts to contribute with smaller individual sponsoring amounts.”
Although there was no immediate response, over the next few weeks and months, each district in Belgium decided to donate, and by April 2009, all four had given, and there was 13,000 Euros available to organize a reduced Healthy Athletes program to include 4 disciplines. Unfortunately, it was not enough to offer dental or hearing screenings or provide free glasses, but all involved appreciated that Healthy Athletes was able to be present.
The event also emphasized the importance of Healthy Athletes in the Special Olympics movement. “We understand now that not having a Healthy Athletes would not be explicable to athletes, families and sponsors. Healthy Athletes is one of the programs that underlines that Special Olympics is a social movement, rather than only a sports event,” Fransman said.
It also illustrated this point to Lions leadership who attended the reduced program and were able to see the need and potential for a more robust program. From there, Fransman and Lions leaders began the work on the first National Program for Healthy Athletes and Lions Clubs in Belgium, and it was this work that led to his December 12 presentation.
Since most Lions in Belgium were already familiar with Healthy Athletes, Fransman spoke briefly about Healthy Athletes, the history of Special Olympics, and the impact donations have for Special Olympics Belgium. Van Dille also spoke, resulting in the unanimous consent. The decision allows the program to go forward in 2010 under the Lions sponsorship and sets the stage for continued support from Lions Clubs in years to come.
Although not yet finalized, Lions leadership is working on a plan that will provide Healthy Athletes Belgium with 25,000 Euro each year going forward. It is hoped that this ongoing revenue stream for the program will begin in 2011 and continue well into the future. It may also serve as a model for programs in other countries.
“The Healthy Athletes program, and our Special Olympics Movement as a whole, has been brought to heights unimaginable through Lions Clubs International’s continued support and global leadership,” said David Evangelista, Director of the Special Olympics Lions Clubs International Opening Eyes program. “We are proud of the relationship that we share with the largest service club organization in the world, and look forward to continuing to provide these life changing services in more communities worldwide.”