Looking for members of Charlotte High LEO Club? Just look for any event or program that supports and benefits the public, and chances are there will be a group of community-minded LEO Club teenagers in maroon and gold shirts lending a hand. You’ll find them:

• Preparing and selling food and drinks at the Air Show

• Face painting at schools, churches, festivals, and holiday events.

• Manning booths, picking up trash, taking photos at Dragon Boats, Frontier Days, and Taste of Punta Gorda.

• Molding and painting pots for Empty Bowls, then serving food and cleaning up at the dinner.

• Working with McCurdy BBQ at the dedication of the Vietnam Wall.

• Working concession with the Y’s Men at the Englewood Waterfest to raise money for children.

• Wrapping Christmas gifts for varies events, including Home Instead Senior Care’s distribution of gifts to local seniors.

• Painting for Habitat for Humanity and helping set up the Habitat store for the holidays.

Exhausted yet? Not the LEOs. Like their sponsor, the Punta Gorda Lions Club, “LEOs help preform eye screenings throughout the community. LEOs are trained by the Lions to operate special equipment. Lions Clubs preform eye screening in different areas for homeless, indigent, actually anyone in need,” said LEO Club adviser Marie Hochsprung.

At Charlotte High the LEOs have organized a feminine products drive on behalf of female students, a community baby shower where items donated went to Baker Elementary and the Charlotte Technical Center Pumpkin Patch for local families in need. The LEOs opened a clothes closet where they have items such as dresses for prom , suits, dress shoes, regular school clothes and jackets, all donated, and those famous new sneakers donated from by Kiwanis Shoes for Kids

“Items donated never go to waste as we donate anything we can’t use to somebody who can,” Marie said.

LEO Amber Hendricks is organizing a project creating “Bags of Love” for patients at Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida. Amber and other LEOs are making activity bags to include a fashioned craft for the kids with instructions on how to make a butterfly clip. The bags also toys, games and clay they can use over and over that was purchased by an anonymous benefactor Marie refers to as “a blessing angel.”

Amber is enthusiastic about the club. “LEO Club has taught me leadership skills, she said, “and has given me confidence is searching out things I can do to make a difference in our community.”

Incoming LEO Secretary Aeriona Mathison is organizing a “Pennies for Pooches, Dollars for Dogs, all Cash for Canines” fundraiser with the help of other LEOs placing donation cans in classrooms. LEOs will be collecting and counting the money for three weeks. The classroom that raises the most money will have a pizza party organized by LEO President Yazmin Castelo.

LEO Treasurer Shona Hochsprung said money raised will go to Florida Guide Dogs, with LEO Club matching the first $500 raised.

Shona praises the club for giving her confidence. “This club is about learning to step out with others even when you feel you can’t,” she said.

“You learn you can make a difference,” said member Nahama Antoine. “Being a LEO has been an exciting experience for me. Volunteering and helping others has been heartwarming and has given me a new drive toward service.’

Marie said a LEO member can accumulate some 200 hours of volunteering.

“It’s amazing,” she said. “They’re in school, they have homework and things they must do around the house, and still they volunteer. They’re all good kids.”

Membership into the club is not always easy.

“It’s their club,” Marie said. “It’s not my club, I’m only here to help facilitate and support them. They all feel like it’s a family and they are very protective of that family. LEO officers go through the applications, President Yazmin interviews potential LEOs to see what knowledge and skills they can add to the club in benefiting the community.”

Marie checks grades and background to be sure they are a good fit.

Young Lions

LEO Club International is the youth organization youth of Lions International. The word “LEO” stands for Leadership, Experience, Opportunity.” LEO Clubs encourage young people to develop leadership qualities by participating in social service activities. The Lions/LEO motto is “We Serve,” and the guiding principle of the CHS LEOs is “it’s not about what you have, but what you are able to give…a smile, a laugh and a little help can change a person’s day.”

The LEO Club meets weekly in a CHS classroom after school. The club pretty much runs itself. Projects may be suggested by the president and officers, as well as calls for help that come in, and LEO members vote on them.

“These kids could think of a million things to go out and do, like going to the movies or attending school functions and activities. They’ve missed a lot of things over the years, but they make the choice.”

Presently LEOs are collecting soda tabs for the Ronald McDonald House, hearing aids and old eyeglasses – even broken ones – for recycling. The Lions clubs clean and repair the eyewear, which is distributed to people who can’t afford to buy their own. Such items can be dropped off at Charlotte High for the LEO Club.

“Helping people” Marie said. “That’s what LEOs are all about.

“I do enjoy it” she added. “I don’t tell them that enough, I guess, but I think they know. I know it’s where God wants me to be. We all have an expiration date and we are all expendable, so I want to take care of what’s been placed it my hands.”

How it all started

The late Bob Whipple of the Punta Gorda Lions suggested forming a LEO Club at Charlotte High School. Whipple sponsored the club, which is named the Whipple Chapter in memory of his son, Jim.

“Mr. Whipple passed away last August,” Marie said. “This year, we added a page to the yearbook saying goodbye to our seniors and included Mr. Whipple. He was an amazing supporter of our group.”

Former Charlotte High School Principal Barney Duffy asked Marie if she would serve as club adviser for one year to get the club.

“I prayed about it’ then took the opportunity to honor my parents and the Lord,” Marie said. “My parents had instilled the love of service and I knew the Lord would give me the strength.”

The CHS LEO club started with 20 applications in 2011. It was officially incorporated in 2012 by International Lions.

Marie began serving her community around the age of seven alongside her parents and brothers in their hometown in Westchester County, N.Y. Her parents, Robert and Lilias Taylor, were very involved with the American Legion and other groups.

“We volunteered with the Legion all over, and I was their parade clown,” Marie said, noting that the family visited a local veterans’ hospital, rehabilitation center, orphanage and other facilities.

“They don’t have orphanages anymore,” Marie said, “ but I volunteered at one.” My dad would pick kids up from a group home and take them to a movie. We would all ride in the Forty and Eight (the American Legion’s special locomotive boxcar originating in Europe during World War I).

“When we’d go to the VA hospital, my brother and I would be a little nervous,” Marie recalled. “We were nine or 10 at the time and looking at the patient, my father would remind us,’ ‘There by the grace of God, go I.’ ”

Marie learned some valuable lessons from her parents and hopes to pass them on to the LEOs, her one-year stint with the club having turned into eight “awesome” years.

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