100 Years of Service

Now with 16,000 chapters in more than 80 countries, the Kiwanis International organization started off small in Detroit


Left: The first Kiwanis board. Right: Measuring children in the 1920s.


Let’s start off with a simple, two-question quiz:

What service club distributes more than 100,000 free new and used books each year to Detroit children — 1.3 million books total in the past 12 years?

What international service club that boasts 16,000 chapters and nearly 600,000 members in 80 countries is celebrating in 1915 the 100th anniversary of its founding — in none other than the city of Detroit?

The answer to both questions: Kiwanis Club. 

The above tidbits tend to elicit more questions: Kiwanis Club started in Detroit? Who knew? Kiwanis Club hands out 100,000 books a year to kids? Again, who knew? Oh, and what the heck does “Kiwanis” mean, anyway? 

All of this, and much more, will take center stage at two major soirees in January to celebrate “Kiwanis1,” as the Detroit chapter is known. On Jan. 23, a dessert reception will take place at the Detroit Historical Museum, which will display an official Kiwanis History Exhibit. The following day is the birthday party, a dinner, and concert at the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center. 

Central to these Detroit celebrations, says Kiwanis1 President Eric Sabree, will be a rededication for the Michigan Historical Marker at Griswold Street and Grand River Avenue in downtown Detroit. Now being restored, it designates the place where the first official Kiwanis meeting assembled in Jan. 21, 1915, at the now-demolished Griswold Hotel. 

Conceived originally in late 1914 as a business club called the Benevolent Order of Brothers, they had the motto, “We Trade.” But they filed paperwork and were chartered as the Kiwanis in 1915. 

And after some debate, the Kiwanis changed its main focus in 1919 to one of community service, soon adopting the motto, “We Build.” Three years earlier, in 1916, Kiwanis had gone both national, with clubs in several American cities, and international, with clubs established in Hamilton and Toronto, Ontario. 

Its history, including the admission of women members as of 1987, is important. But it’s the club’s generous community service that warrants primary recognition. Kiwanis International (now based in Indianapolis) reports that clubs raise about $100 million a year and donate 6 million service hours.

Major projects focus on children. For example, the Eliminate Project is a Kiwanis International-UNICEF mission to eliminate maternal and neonatal tetanus. Along with the Eliminate Project, the Detroit chapter also supports the Salvation Army, Children’s Hospital of Michigan, and the Capuchin Soup Kitchen.

But the book giveaway is the Detroit club’s signature project. Twelve years ago, says longtime Kiwanian Joseph Lentini, owner of DENCAP Dental Plans in Detroit, “we discovered there was no reading material in people’s homes. 

“One of the Kiwanians spent a month having police officers fill out small surveys logging what they saw when they went to someone’s home: TV, radio, newspapers, books. There were no books. We hadn’t realized how severe the problem was.”

“So we started begging for books,” says Lentini, who offers substantial DENCAP warehouse space for book storage. “Publishers were shocked — they’d talk to me about 200 books; we were talking thousands. They didn’t believe we would be able to distribute all of them.” 

Looking ahead, Kiwanis has strong traditions, but some challenges. Traditions include family history. Sabree’s father, Bill Humphries, now deceased, joined in 1974; Sabree’s daughter, Aliyah, at 30 is the Detroit chapter’s youngest member. (The oldest member is 94 and attends meetings with his son.)  

“I felt it was a good organization that was doing some great work,” Sabree says of the meetings he attended with his father years ago. “There isn’t a lot of politics. Everybody just gets together, has lunch, and then does a project.”

The main challenge, like most 20th century clubs: membership. There are just 64 members (there are two other Detroit chapters). Too many people know too little about Kiwanis, Sabree says: “We have to do a better job of promoting our ‘brand,’ so to speak. People get involved just to help and don’t think about promoting the club. But it’s important the public knows where this help is coming from.”

Still, 100 years is 100 years. Coincidentally, another great Detroit institution is celebrating its centennial next year, too — and there’s a connection. It has to do with that “what-the-heck-does-Kiwanis-mean?” quiz question.

You could blame it on Clarence Monroe Burton, whose massive historical collection that he donated to the Detroit Public Library in 1914 formally opened in, you guessed it, 1915. Burton, then Detroit historian, was asked for name suggestions. His research led him to submit several Indian names. “Kee-wanis” was chosen. It translated as “to make one’s self known,” or “to express one’s self.” The spelling was changed to “Kiwanis” that first year.

So don’t expect a name change anytime soon. It’s still all about tradition, says Sabree. “I think our club has a great feeling of this tradition, because wherever we go, we get treated with such respect — because we’re from Number One.”

Kiwanis1 meets at the Detroit Athletic Club on the first and third Tuesdays of every month from noon to 1 p.m. For more information, go to kiwanis1.org.


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