Aid vowed for club that gives to others; Fire-stricken Optimists now on receiving end


When St. Andrew's Lutheran Church needed food and supplies for its soup kitchen, church leaders knew who to ask. So did the Loch Raven Boxing club when it needed a gym, and the local recreation center when it needed money and volunteers for a sports program.

Now, after 45 years of helping others, Loch Raven Optimists Club needs help after a three-alarm fire last weekend that wiped out a Hillendale shopping center, causing $1 million in damages and destroying the Optimists' headquarters, among four other businesses.

"We're on our knee right now taking an eight-count," said Frank Gilbert, Optimists member and coach of the boxing club, which is out a gym and more than $6,000 worth of equipment.

"We're asking people to please help us, not just our boxing club, but the Optimists, too. They are the heartbeat of this community."

The Endless Summer Tanning Salon, Pizza Raven, Valencia Lynn's Beauty Salon and a new African supermarket that was about to open also were ruined in the fire and will relocate to new sites. Also displaced was the Loch Raven Civil Air Patrol, an auxiliary service of the Air Force.

The investigation into the fire is continuing.

For the Optimists, the fire means the loss of equipment used in its bingo night fund-raisers, equipment for the boxing program, and years of history that included photos, banners, plaques, files and trophies.

While the Optimists are clearly devastated, members say their good work must continue, and they aren't going it alone.

The Greater Loch Raven Recreation and Parks Council has donated temporary office space for Optimists meetings. Business and community associations have called to ask members what the club needs to get back on its feet. Towson Republican Councilman Wayne M. Skinner's office has offered the resources of county government.

Said Richard Johnson, community supervisor of the recreation council: "They've always reached out to us, now we're going to reach out to them."

Begun in 1953, the Loch Raven Optimists was created to help nurture neighborhood communities and youth programs. Over the years, the organization has maintained its support.

The group donated scholarships to local high schools. Members held breakfasts for the homeless on Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas. They donated thousands of dollars to sports programs. They honored outstanding police officers every year with ceremonies and plaques. Optimists also helped hold Easter egg hunts at Loch Raven Elementary School, held Halloween parades and handed out flowers on Mother's Day.

"There's not a group or person that they haven't touched out there," Skinner said. "They're the best example of your neighbors helping neighbors. They're just like part of the family."

Most of the group's money was raised through the bingo hall, which was open six nights a week. Almost all proceeds, Optimist officials said, went into community programs.

Optimists and community leaders say that's why it's important to get the club working again. Without a building to hold bingo games and flea markets, the Optimists' main sources of fund raising no longer are available.

"We've had to suspend everything right now," said Stephen J. Sausnock, president of the Loch Raven Optimists. "We need to figure out how we will move forward."

"It can't die," said Charles D. Baker, 81, who has been with the club for 44 years. "It has been the most productive and enjoyable thing of my lifetime to be associated with this community group. It has to continue, because the community needs us. We are survivors."

Pub Date: 2/25/99

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