Meridian Civitan Club members celebrated the chapter's 65th birthday in 2012.
The oldest Civitan chapter in Mississippi, club number 572, is part of the Magnolia District of Civitan International, which includes clubs in Louisiana, Central and South Mississippi. The Meridian First Ladies Civitan Club (No. 2483) also is part of the Magnolia District.
The mission of Civitan International is to build good citizenship by providing a volunteer organization of clubs dedicated to serving individual and community needs with an emphasis on helping people with developmental disabilities.
A couple of people who have been Civitans longer than anyone else in Meridian are Doc Braswell and Buddy Coleman.
"I first joined Civitan in 1967," Braswell recalls. "Although the Meridian Civitan Club was 20 years old at that time, we still had several active charter members serving in the club. One of these members, H.M. "Shorty" Bowers served until his death. His sons, Milton and Sidney currently live in Meridian and are successful businessmen, primarily in the automotive industry."
Braswell said the Meridian Civitan Club has produced one international president, George Sheffield, an international chaplain, Dr. Gordan Sansing, and several other prominent leaders such as Dr. A.C. Johnson, a minister and college president. The Meridian Civitan Club scholarship fund at Meridian Community College is named for Johnson.
One of the more prominent local fund raising efforts Braswell remembers from the 1970s was to benefit the research of Cystic Fibrosis.
"We had a member who had two children in his family that suffered from this disease. With the cooperation of a local TV station, we planned and conducted a telethon focused on raising money for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation," Braswell said. "Someone in our club at that time suggested that we invite Bob Hope to participate in that telethon, since he was an outspoken supporter of this cause. He responded positively to our invitation, flew into Meridian, and participated in our telethon. I don't remember how much money we raised, but it was significant."
The First Ladies Civitan Club was chartered in the early 1980s under the sponsorship and leadership of the Meridian Civitan Club. "A member named Terry Cross led that initiative," Braswell said. "Civitan clubs were not co-ed at that time."
Coleman's Civitan history goes back to the 1950s, when he became a charter member and secretary of the club in Eldorado, Ark., around 1955. After moving to Hattiesburg in 1957 he became a member of the club there and served as its president. Later he would move to Meridian, transfer to this club, and serve as its president.
"I have been a member of Civitan just over 50 years and loved every minute of it," Coleman said. "In the last few years, I put together a partnership with the counselor at Carver Middle School to help the Terrific Tigers program add good citizenship to its program. We have had two years of joint work together to promote good citizenship at the school. I think it has been a very successful project for our club."
Unlike the early years of the Meridian Civitan Club, both men and women are members of the civic club now. Rhonda Smith, who joined the club in July 2010 is its president.
She said she has participated in projects that have included United Blood Service blood drives, Special Olympics, Toys for Tots and Civitan Awareness Month.
"The project that I enjoy the most is the Joint Clergy Luncheon that we have with the First Ladies Civitan Club every year in February. The fellowship among clergy and Civitan members from different denominations really shows the community connection and service of what Civitan means," she said. "The most memorable meeting so far was when our club paid special tribute to one of our long time members, Mr. James Vance (deceased May 2012) by donating funds to East Central Community College in his name. The President of ECCC, Dr. Billy Stewart, was our special guest for that meeting and Mr. James Vance's widow, Mrs. Patsy Vance, also attended. The expression of gratitude that they both showed during this time will forever be in my heart. I look forward to the service that our club will provide to our community and surrounding areas in 2013, which will include more projects with the developmentally challenged."
Civitan clubs show appreciation to clergy of all faiths during Clergy Appreciation Week in an effort to promote world brotherhood and religious understanding among all people, regardless of religious persuasion. As the Civitan International website states: "It is a time to reflect on our individual religious beliefs and to promote an understanding and acceptance of the rights of others to participate in a religion different from our own. Clergy Appreciation Week was inspired by an event which occurred during World War II."
On Feb. 3, 1943, the USS Dorchester was torpedoed by a German submarine in the North Atlantic. With 905 American servicemen onboard, only about 200 would survive. As the ship was sinking, U.S. Army chaplains George L. Fox, Alexander D. Goode, Clark V. Poling and John P. Washington calmed the men, distributed life jackets, and got them into lifeboats. When four young soldiers were left without life jackets, each of the chaplains gave up their own.
Survivors saw the four chaplains (one Catholic, one Jewish and two Protestant) clinging to each other on the slanting deck, arms linked together, and heads bowed as they prayed on the sinking ship.
The Civitan organization was founded in 1917. Well known members have included U.S. Presidents Calvin Coolidge, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John F. Kennedy. President Bill Clinton was a junior Civitan member. Other Civitans include Thomas Edison, Richard Petty and Paula Deen.
The focus of the Civitan mission is the University of Alabama Birmingham Civitan International Research Center, a world-class center for groundbreaking research into autism, Down syndrome, brain tumors, epilepsy and more disorders. Civitan also helps fund the Civitan-Sparks Clinics, a treatment and therapy center in Birmingham.
Gina Conner is a past-president of the Meridian Civitan Club. She has been a member since September 1995.
"The many projects we have enjoyed together vary from picking up trash on Highway 45 North, creating Christmas Parade floats for Hope Village for Children, working on Habitat For Humanity homes and feeding the volunteers, ringing the Salvation Army Bell, and providing "Have A Heart" Blood Drives with special recognition of blood donors with supportive community sponsors," Conner said. "I also had the privilege to participate in a joint field trip with the First Ladies Civitan Club to the Civitan International Research Center in Birmingham. I would recommend the opportunity to every member. It is truly amazing to see and know we are a part of such a fabulous venture and commitment. What a difference we are making to many whom we'll never know or have the opportunity to meet."
Perhaps no one has been as responsible for bringing new members into the Meridian Civitan Club as Doc Braswell.
"Civitan has been an important part of my life. Some of my closest friendships have been developed through Civitan," he said. "Civitan provides an opportunity to serve our Lord by serving our community. I have invited many people to join Civitan because I believe in the principles and goals of Civitan. More than 30 people have responded to my invitation to become members."
For more information about Civitan, visit the website www.civitan.com.
Building good citizenship since 1947
Meridian Civitan Club members celebrated the chapter's 65th birthday in 2012.
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