Bird Island's Brian Sheehan to lead Lions International in 2021
BIRD ISLAND -- Harry Truman held the highest office in the land, yet was always proud to boast that the small town of Independence, Missouri, was his home.
BIRD ISLAND - Harry Truman held the highest office in the land, yet was always proud to boast that the small town of Independence, Missouri, was his home.
And so it is for Brian Sheehan, who will soon be leading Lions International, with 1.47 million members in over 47,000 clubs in more than 200 countries.
Bird Island is home for Sheehan, and he too is more than happy to tell others about it.
"We just love this community. I talk about it globally," said Sheehan of the town of about 1,000 people.
The Lions elected him their international third vice president at the international convention earlier this month in Las Vegas. It puts the 60-year-old Sheehan on track to lead the organization as its president in 2021, which will be exactly 100 years after the last Minnesotan held the office.
No exaggeration when Sheehan says he speaks globally about his hometown in Renville County. He's just 100,000 miles shy of 1 million miles of air travel as part of his globetrotting duties with Lions.
All of this travel, really, because of Bird Island. He joined the Bird Island Lions Club in 1991. He said he was inspired by his father, Fabian, who was among its charter members in 1964.
"He was very huge into community. It was all about community,'' said Sheehan of his father. "Lions fits right into it because Lions is all about community first,'' he added.
Fabian Sheehan started Sheehan Gas and delivered propane fuel to area farms. Brian and his siblings developed computer programming that helped his father calculate when to deliver propane to his customers based on heating degree days and their usage patterns.
It was the start of Rural Computer Consultants, the company that Sheehan and some of his siblings lead today. The computer software programming company has 56 staff members and offices in Bird Island, Birmingham, Alabama, and Portland, Maine.
As its CEO, Sheehan spends many of his working hours telecommuting while flying around the world, electronically connected to the home office. His focus on technology is one of his goals for Lions. As third vice president, he's working on using technology to better connect Lions and help them recruit young members.
Ever since Robert Putnam authored "Bowling Alone'' in 2000, it's been no secret that membership by young people in community organizations has been waning in the country. But Sheehan said he steps into a Lions organization that is seeing some success in bucking this trend: Membership in the Lions is on the grow, with more members today than ever before.
Sheehan said the growth is not as fast in the U.S. as in some other countries, particularly India and parts of Asia. But he is optimistic that Lions can continue to attract young members in the U.S.
"The younger generation wants to volunteer as much as anybody else,'' Sheehan said. "They don't want to sit in meetings. They want to get on the ground.''
Getting boots on the ground and performing community service is exactly what Lions is all about, according to Sheehan.
Sheehan said the Lions are also welcoming more women to the ranks. Today, about 37 percent of the membership is female, he said. The current Lions president, Gudrun Bjort Yngvadottir of Gardabaer, Iceland, is the first female to hold the office.
Sheehan and his wife, Lori, are both Lions. Lori joined the Olivia club because it accepted women when the Bird Island club did not.
The Bird Island club counts 66 members today, women among them. It has a good mix of ages as well, said Sheehan.
No different than when he joined, Sheehan said its new members are looking for the chance to help their community as well as to socialize and get to know their neighbors.
Local clubs choose their own projects. On the international level, they support projects and partnerships aimed at vision, hunger, environment and diabetes. Each year, the financial arm of Lions International provides $60 million a year to major projects.
The Lions are all volunteers, Sheehan included. All of his work as third vice president is on a voluntary basis. Support from his partners and co-workers at Rural Computer Consultants, and Lori and family, make his role as an international leader for Lions possible, he said.
"I couldn't do this myself,'' he said.
He jokingly tells his fellow international board members that as president, he will be inviting them to Bird Island for meetings in the Island Ballroom, where they will dine on funeral hotdish.
Truth is, he said, is that it really doesn't matter if a Lions member comes from a tiny, rural community or a major metropolis like Calcutta, India.
"One of the things I love about this organization is it is a huge family,'' Sheehan said. "You automatically bond with them because they want to accomplish the same things. It's like one huge family.''
And it will be a bigger one, if Sheehan realizes his goal as president to bring membership up to 1.5 million.