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Robert Barrett was a relatively young man when he signed up to be a member of Shriners International around 26 years ago.
Now, at age 65, he is among the younger of the nearly 400 men who make up the Newfoundland and Labrador chapter of the group dedicated to raising money to help children with certain medical needs.
Last weekend, the Gillams resident and native of Bishop’s Cove in Conception Bay earned the title of illustrious potentate as the new leader of the 10 Shriners clubs in Newfoundland.
“To come from two small places, it’s humbling, really, to be able to have this honour for the next year,” he said.
Four of his first five days as potentate were spent working out a calendar for him to visit the clubs scattered throughout the province and to attend fundraisers and special events in support of their causes.
“I don’t think 365 days will be enough,” he said, referencing the fact the title can only be held for one year.
Among the chief tasks will be recruitment of new blood to keep the Shriners a vibrant organization. He said the provincial membership has dropped from around 600 to around 395 in recent times.
“We need younger people but they’re hard to get because of their commitment to their families,” he said. “Usually, someone won’t even consider joining the Shriners until they’re in their 50s.”
He acknowledged this is not a problem specific to the Shriners. Other community-minded service groups, such as the Knights of Columbus, the Lions Club and the Kinsmen are all vying for those same recruits.
While it is technically a men-only organization, Barrett said spouses and other women are quite actively involved in Shriner activities.
In fact, at the annual banquet at which he became illustrious potentate, the women who support their members in any way were asked to stand so they could be thanked for their invaluable help.
“It would be hard to continue without them,” said Barrett.
Age, he added, does not diminish the commitment of Shriners to help children with orthopedic conditions, serious burns, spinal cord injuries, or cleft lips and palates.
Looking back at his many experiences with the Shriners during the last three decades, he said it’s helping children that remains the most important aspect of all they do.
“As time goes by, you look for something in your life to fill the void or get involved with something you think you can help,” he said. “Just to see a child come out of a hospital in a parent’s arms and the parent to ask if you’re a Shriner and to thank you for what you’ve done is all we need.”
Did you know?
This summer, the Mazol Shriners of Newfoundland and Labrador will host members of the Northeast Shrine Association, which takes in Eastern Canada and the Northeastern United States, in Corner Brook later this year.
More than 300 Shriners are expected to be in the area for the event from Aug. 15-17, which will include a series of public community-oriented events.
(**This article was edited Feb. 5, 2019 to correctly state that the provincial Mazol Shriners and not the Long Range Shriners of Corner Brook will be hosting the Northeast Shrine Association in Corner Brook this summer.)