Southerners are nothing if not giving. If you ask anyone what the first thing they think of when they think “Southern,” it will most likely be that famous hospitality.
So it never surprises me when Southerners are among the most giving, the most charitable, the most full-of-heart around. This being the case, it’s only natural that many charitable organizations began in the South.
One of the most well-respected are the Civitan. This association of service clubs was founded in Birmingham, Alabama in 1917. They emphasize helping those with developmental disabilities and boast over 40,000 members. Connected to the Rotary Clubs early in their history, this group of men wanted to further their volunteerism, so they formed Civitan just before the start of World War I.
They supported soldiers, war orphans, and encouraged voter participation for three years before spreading out and forming the Association of Civitan Clubs. Only two years later, there were 3,300 members and 115 clubs. The 1920’s were a time of optimism, so the Civitans flourished as they promoted morals, health, intellect, recreation, and personal responsibility. Through the Great Depression, they survived by partnering with the Kiwanis, Rotary, and Lion clubs and even created Junior Civitan clubs. Civitan clubs exists on college campuses, such as Mississippi College in Jackson, Mississippi.
Their members were among the first to volunteer for their country when World War II broke out, but those who remained at home collected metal scraps, hosted blood drives, and sold war bonds. When the war was over, the Civitans continued to have a strong sense of unity, but yet continue to let individual clubs choose priorities that are important to their communities. You’ll perhaps recognize another iconic Civitan fundraiser from the South — the Candy Box Project — which began in Kentucky. They also sell the famous Claxton Cakes every holiday season, a tradition that began in at a club in Georgia. Their international clubs have created hospitals, supported reading programs, sponsoring Clergy Appreciation Weeks, and, perhaps most importantly, provided training for teachers of the developmentally disabled.
In 1990, the Civitans donated the International Research Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the first of its kind to focus solely on research for developmental disabilities. With clubs now in 29 countries of the world, medical professional come from all over the globe for training.
The Civitans have a rich and storied history, with such illustrious members such as Thomas Edison, Cornelius Vanderbilt IV, Bo Jackson, Richmond H. Hilton, Presidents Calvin Coolidge, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Harry Truman.
“Civitan” means citizenship, and that’s exactly what these humanitarians do — promote citizenship and build volunteers. If you’re looking for a way to get involved in your community, check out the Civitans. These are the types of folks you’d want as your neighbors.
Perhaps the men and women of the Civitans are best summed up in their pledge — “to practice the Golden Rule and to build upon it a better and nobler citizenship.”