(Community Works is a monthly column highlighting business involvement in community and charitable programs.)
Later this month, residents of Edmonton, Calgary, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat will be among the many Albertans who attend the annual Shrine Circus.
Members of the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, as Shriners are more officially named, might be thought of as advanced Freemasons – members must be either a 32nd degree Scottish Rite Mason, or a Knights Templar York Rite Mason. And although Shriners come from many walks of life, they have at least one thing in common: the Shriners Creed states the belief that care for the less fortunate, especially children who suffer from burns and crippling diseases, is (their) institutional calling.
“We hear the stories of some of these children – there are a lot of tear-jerkers – and it’s not uncommon to see grown men cry,” says Terry Dean of the Al-Azhar Temple, home to Shriners south of Red Deer. Just as is the case with the Al-Shamal Temple for those north of Red Deer, the group is dedicated to doing its part to provide free medical treatment for children in need.
Shriners operate 22 centres of excellence, including three Shriners Burn Institutes. Children in Alberta are routed to the Spokane Shriners Unit. As many as 120 per year are helped, including those children in programs on and off for several years at a time.
Although the circus has been the Shiners’ primary fund- raiser for well over 35 years, proceeds do not go to hospital programs. Rather, the money enables the 8,000 Shriners in Alberta to operate as an organization serving that goal. The actual funds raised will vary from year to year according to attendance and economic conditions, but even in bad years ($60,000) the amount is not peanuts. Profits from the Al-Shamal circus last year were cited at $153,000.
The circus is contracted and organized separately by the Al Azhar and Al Shamal Shriners. This year, both groups have again chosen Las Vegas-based New Jordan World Circus.
Neither the circus concept nor this producer is without controversy.
Many activists are opposed to any use of animals as entertainment, and New Jordan World Circus has been mentioned on several animal-welfare websites, as well as at a recent public hearing in Edmonton regarding whether that city should ban circuses and travelling fairs that display exotic animals.
The Shriners do not hesitate to answer criticism of the circus or its producer.
Calgary administrator David Bruce says post-show surveys confirm the children enjoy having the animals as part of the program. “We have every reason to believe the animals are taken care of,” Bruce adds. “The SPCA is there to make sure.”
The annual circus fund-raiser may have the Shriners walking a tightrope in public perception. To some, they’re doing the wrong thing for the right reasons; to others – at least 35,000 annually in each of the two major cities – the Shrine Circus is novel, affordable family entertainment.
No doubt to the parents of a child receiving free treatment, the difference is moot. For them, this just may be one circus where, ultimately, every feat is death defying. The Shrine Circus comes to Edmonton Sky Reach Centre March 7-9, Calgary Pengrowth Saddledome March 14-16, Lethbridge Enmax Centre March 17 and Medicine Hat Arena March 18.
* March 8: Stars of Hope at the Jubilee Auditorium; Edmonton. * March 29: Calgary Cares 2003, in the Jack Singer Concert Hall; Calgary.
(Karen Ritchie hosts the Community File on QR77 Radio. Send your corporate/community event listing to firstname.lastname@example.org)