Turtle Derby Kickoff for the Johnson City Lions Club was held at the Johnson City Country Club Thursday and a Vice President George Winton displayed the mechanical racing turtle. (Sue Legg/Johnson City Press)
The Johnson City’s Lions Club has kicked off its 61st annual Turtle Derby campaign to help provide eye exams, glasses and pediatric eye screenings for local children and adults who cannot afford them.
The derby is set to run Nov. 1 at Brooks Gymnasium at East Tennessee State University. Admission is free and door prizes, including a new bicycle, will be given away.
Turtle sponsorships are $50 and include free advertising in the Turtle Derby program if purchased before Oct. 24. Sponsorships may be obtained from any Lions Club member or online at johnsoncity.tnlions.org.
Tuesday’s Turtle Derby Kickoff luncheon at the Johnson City Country club included news from Turtle Derby Task Master Ken Gough that the new ETSU Lions Club chapter is helping with the derby’s set up for the first time this year.
The mechanical turtles that make up the racing field have been brought out of storage and will undergo refurbishment to ensure their race-worthiness next week.
Posters and tickets for the children who race the turtles will be ordered in twice the number available for last year’s Derby and will soon be available at area schools and other Lions eye-screening locations.
Explaining the history of the derby, Club Vice President George Winton said that for most of the derby’s 61 years, local Lions purchased live turtles from a nursery located on Louisiana’s Lake Ponchartrain.
When a particularly perilous hurricane season put the nursery and the turtle supply in jeopardy some years ago, the Johnson City club invested in its battery-operated mechanical turtles, which were well received for a couple of pluses they brought to the races.
The government health department’s fear of the spread of bacteria that prevented children from handling live turtles was eliminated. And the mechanical turtles made for a closer, more exciting competition.
Through sponsorships pledged by area businesses and individuals, Winton said the derby traditionally raises about $25,000 that the Lions use to provide free eye exams and glasses to approximately 300 local children and adults who apply for their assistance annually.
In addition to eye exams and glasses for those who might otherwise go without, the derby also helps the Lions provide pediatric eye screenings and referrals for early detection and treatment of sight-impairing conditions suffered by children, scholarships for local college students pursuing careers in eye health, an eyeglass recycling program that allows everyone to contribute to improving the sight of those less fortunate, and in lesser numbers, hearing exams and hearing aids for those who cannot afford them.
In other news, Gough said the club will be delivering its collection of used eyeglasses to the club’s recycling center in Roanoke, Va., on Nov. 9 and encouraged community members to bring the lenses and frames they no longer use to their collection boxes at area Walmart stores.