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There's More Than Meets the Eye at a Demolition Derby

Salena Zito on

NEW ALEXANDRIA, Pennsylvania -- The scent of funnel cakes, grilled hot dogs and an ever-so-faint whiff of diesel fuel fill the air. The odd combination somehow works, adding to the excitement and anticipation as thousands of families and gearheads fill the stands surrounding the track of the local Lions Club Demolition Derby here in Westmoreland County.

From the clothing to the massive, oversized tires that serve as makeshift bumpers to protect the people in the stands from an errant jalopy, nearly everything and everyone is draped in red, white and blue.

Before you form a misguided stereotype, there is a lot more going on here than first meets the eye -- beginning with the organization that is running it. The Lions Club began in 1917 in Chicago, founded by business leader Melvin Jones. Jones believed that members of the business community, large and small, had an obligation to address the betterment of their local communities. Like other do-goody fraternal organizations of that era, the club's objective was to serve outside the influences of government and politics.

Within three years, it went international. The club showcased its efforts at the world's fair, made Amelia Earhart an honorary member, answered Helen Keller's challenge to serve the blind, provided an organized baseball program for children (that led to the very first Little League baseball game, played in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, in 1939) and gave 6-year-old Stevie Wonder a drum set for Christmas.

One hundred four years later, the Lions are still doing good deeds, including this demolition derby. Its proceeds will go back into the community, explains Randy Bacher, president of the New Alexandria Lions Club.

"This is all about giving back and serving the community," Bacher says. The roar of the engines of the derby cars is so constant that he has to shout, and then the siren signals the end of that round of demolition driving. "Our proceeds go to the local schools where we run the Lunchables Backpack program, which provides weekend meals and snacks for local schoolchildren. We also sponsor scholarships through the two local high schools for the community college and also help fund four local volunteer fire departments."

 

In turn, those same people give back by volunteering to staff the event. "They are running the stands, keeping the track clear, coordinating the parking lot and serving as ambassadors to guests," explains Greg Oyaick, second vice president of the club.

Both men are standing on the sidelines, overseeing the operation, enjoying the event and making sure everything is running smoothly.

"Unfortunately, we have more volunteers than we have members of the club," explains Bacher. They have tried 100 different ways of trying to recruit young people to join the club, he says, but nothing seems to interest them.

"When we were young, we were compelled to serve," he says. "This culture promotes this what-is-in-it-for-me attitude that doesn't always lead to service to the community."

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