HJ/EDMarch 27, 2006

Cokato Lions: ready to serve

By Roz Kohls
Staff Writer

The Cokato Lions Club is a mixture of social and service activities, depending on its members’ comfort level, Mike Lhotka said.

Lhotka of Cokato said he has been a member of the group for more than 23 years. The Cokato Lions are celebrating their 25th anniversary this year.

Lhotka, originally from Silver Lake, joined the Lions as “a way to get involved in the community,” he said.

Lhotka graduated from Minnesota State University of Moorhead. “It fit. I’d been involved in some type of service group in college,” said Lhotka, who now teaches physics and chemistry at Dassel Cokato High School.

Lhotka came to Cokato in 1981 after teaching for five years in the Winger area in northwestern Minnesota. His wife, Barb, had landed a job at MAWSECO at the same time. Lhotka joined the Lions shortly after that, he said.

The Cokato Lions officially serve Dassel as well. Half of its members are from Dassel. Dave Pitchford is the current president, Lhotka said.

Some of the larger Lions’ service projects are quietly giving to needy families, Thanksgiving baskets, Silent Santa, eye glasses project, the blood drive, and partnering with other organizations to raise funds, Lhotka said.

The scouts and boosters are groups, for example, for which the Lions help raise funds, he said.

The Silent Santa toy drive at Christmas is one of Lhotka’s favorites. “It’s grown,” he said.

Silent Santa started with the group only collecting toys from members at the Cokato Lions’ Christmas party. Then the Lions began collecting toys from residents in Dassel and Cokato. Now, the Lions collect toys county wide. Silent Santa has grown so large that Heartland Community Action helps distribute them, Lhotka said.

This year Allina donated two bikes that had been assembled at the Cokato Medical Clinic for a teamwork training project to the Silent Santa collection. The Lions had a random drawing to see which recipients would get the bikes, he said.

It isn’t only Lions who do the work, Lhotka said. Silent Santa involves churches and the National Honor Society from the high school.

“Everybody chips in. We just happen to be the group that collects,” Lhotka said.

The Lions try to keep the money they raise in local projects. But they also support an eye bank, eye clinic and hearing clinic at the University of Minnesota. “It’s quite an impressive facility,” he said.

The project that seems to involve the most work, though, is grilling the 3,000 to 4,000 pork chops for the Cokato Corn Carnival. Not only do Lions work the grills, but also are involved with the Corn Carnival committee and church stands, he said.

Lhotka recalled many fun social events sponsored by the Cokato Lions. The Lions took a bus to see the St. Paul Saints, for example, and then cooked out at the ball park, he said.

The midwinter convention in January in Bloomington is fun, as well as the monthly meetings, he added.

The Lions also had fall bonfires and potlucks in members’ backyards. “They were kind of a family thing,” Lhotka said.

Lhotka also remembered a time when the Cokato Lions grilled pork chops on a float during the Cokato Corn Carnival, he said.

The Cokato Lions regularly host a pork chop feed the last Friday in April at Cokato Elementary School.

“Everybody comes in and cooks and serves,” Lhotka said.

During Lhotka’s early years with the Lions, members had a smelt fry in the last week of April. The club sent members up north to net them, he said.

Lhotka said the Cokato Lions are glad to add more service and fund raising projects. “We’re open to suggestions,” he said.

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