By Brad Reynolds
It’s no challenge finding someone whose life has been touched by the Shriners. You probably know people who have attended Shrine events or have met families impacted by the organization’s generosity. Everyone is familiar with the Shriners. Everyone knows the Shriners help children. But not everyone understands exactly how.
One reason you might be fuzzy on the details is because Shriners tend to be humble. Another is because the organization is incredibly complex —tethered to the Freemasons, associated with numerous activities (circus, parades, etc.), and shrouded in Middle Eastern lore.
This year, the Shriners celebrate 150 years of serving communities across our state, throughout this country, and around the world. If you seek clarity on what a Shriner is and what the Shriners do, we hope this article will provide understanding —or, in the very least, help to honor the incredible legacy of fun and philanthropy that the Shriners have come to stand for.
A Brotherhood of Benevolence
The Shriners hardly resemble the organization they were 150 years ago. At that time, the “Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine” was largely an outlet for the Freemasons to have some fun. The idea was conceived when Freemason and actor William Jermyn Florence attended a series of parties in Marseille, Algiers, and Cairo. Each featured an elaborately staged musical comedy and ended with a tongue-in-cheek induction of partygoers into a “secret society.” Upon returning to his Masonic lodge in New York, Florence shared his experiences with Walter Millard Fleming, and the two developed the concept for a fraternity within their fraternity, complete with Middle Eastern rituals, symbology, and costumes. They initiated one another on August 13, 1870, and the first Shrine “Temple” (named Mecca Temple) was established at the Masonic Hall in New York.
By 1900, the Shriners had accumulated 82 Temples and 55,000 members, many of whom belonged to the social elite. In fact, Life magazine would go on to describe the organization as “among secret lodges, the No. 1 in prestige, wealth, and show.”
It was a sensational assembly.
And then, it became something more.
Throughout 1919 and into 1920, the Imperial Potentate-elect (i.e. president- elect), Freeland Kendrick, traveled more than 150,000 miles, visiting a majority of the Shriners’ 146 temples and campaigning for an official Shrine philanthropy. In June 1920, at the Imperial Session in Portland, Kendrick proposed establishing the “Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children,” to be supported by a $2 yearly assessment from each Shriner. Many, however, were dubious of the idea and voiced concerns about the Shrine assuming this kind of responsibility. Prospects for approval began to dim when Noble Forrest Adair (of Yaarab Temple, Atlanta) rose to speak:
“I was lying in bed yesterday morning, about four o’clock… and some poor fellow who had strayed from the rest of the band… stood down there under the window for 25 minutes playing ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.’
“I thought of the wandering minstrel, and I wondered if there were not a deep
significance in the tune…
“While we have spent money for songs and spent money for bands, it’s time for the Shrine to spend money for humanity.
“I want to see this thing started. Let’s get rid of all the technical objections. And if there is a Shriner in North America who objects to having paid the two dollars after he has seen the first crippled child helped, I will give him a check back for it myself.”
When he was through, Noble Adair sat down to thunderous applause.
The resolution passed unanimously.
The Heart of the Shriners
What began as a single hospital in Shreveport, Louisiana is now “Shriners Children’s”—a world-renowned health care system with 21 pediatric sub-specialty facilities across the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Each Shriners Children’s location is funded largely through donations raised by Shrine Temples, providing care to children with orthopedic conditions, burns, spinal cord injuries, cleft palates, and other conditions. Patients receive all services in a family- centered environment, regardless of their family’s ability to pay.
No insurance? No problem.
“Our twelve supporting Temples work tirelessly for our Shriners Children’s Spokane patients. The contributions they make, not just financially, but with their time and their dedication in and out of the hospital, makes all the difference,” explains Kristin Monasmith of Shriners Children’s in Spokane, the hospital directly supported by all three of Montana’s Shrine Temples.
As the Director of Marketing/ Communications and Business Development for Shriners Children’s Spokane, Monasmith has the responsibility of making sure families throughout the region, as well as referring providers, understand what Shriners Children’s does, who they are, and how to access the hospital’s specialty care.
“Shriners Children’s Spokane has the largest group of fellowship trained pediatric orthopedic surgeons in our region. Our team understands children and adolescents are not small adults. They have different injuries with unique risk factors and healing processes because they are still growing,” Monasmith explains. “We understand the unique medical needs of children. Finding an expert who understands the needs of growing bones and joints is critical. The types of conditions we see vary from serious orthopedic issues requiring multiple surgeries to fractures or sports injuries easily corrected with one surgery. We provide our patients surgery, rehabilitation: PT/OT, Sports Medicine PT, speech therapy, radiology, and child life services, all within our hospital.”
As Monasmith works to spread the word about Shriners Children’s Spokane, back in Montana, Shriners work to provide guidance and travel assistance to families in need of the hospital’s services.
“Any physician can refer a patient to Shriners. Once that need has been identified, we work with the families to assist them with their travel and lodging expenses while they get their children the help they need,” explains Sharon Nielsen, a Daughter of the Nile (the all-women counterpart to the Shriners) and administrative assistant of the Algeria Temple
The Algeria, Bagdad (Butte), and Al Bedoo (Billings) Temples can all provide direction and financial assistance for families, as can the many clubs throughout the state working
under the umbrella of the three Temples.
“We definitely leaned on them for guidance,” says Christine Rattling Tail of Great Falls.
Her son, John, was born with a missing fibula in one leg (fibular hemimelia), which ultimately necessitated the amputation of his foot. Shriners in Montana helped the family get to Shriners Children’s in Spokane, where they provided the surgery, a prosthetic, and physical therapy.
“It’s a relief to not have to worry about how you’re going to pay to help your child,” says Rattling Tail. “Who knows if he would even be able to walk without the services they provided. They’re a blessing.”
This is the story of many families. They have been provided more than financial and medical assistance; the Shriners have given them hope.
“Thanks to them, I was able to access medical care I could never have received in the small Montana town I lived in,” says Amalia Ostwalt of Havre.
At age 5, Ostwalt made her first trip to Shriners Children’s in Spokane for scoliosis treatment.
“The staff at Shriners created a welcoming and friendly environment and the hospital was fun to go to because they had indoor and outdoor play areas with toys, play equipment, and a gaming area,” she remembers. “One thing I really liked about Shriners is that everyone talked directly to me about my scoliosis. From the age of 5 until my surgery when I was 12 years old, I wore a back brace in an attempt to hold my spine in place as long as possible. Every time I outgrew a brace, I went to Spokane to have another one made. This meant putting me in traction to straighten my spine and building the brace by putting plaster on me and letting it dry. By the time I had surgery at the age of 12, I had accumulated seven braces.”
Ostwalt and her mother, Heather MacLean, made multiple trips to Spokane, and their local Shriners regularly assisted with the travel expenses.
“I also had the opportunity to have my face on a billboard and be in two commercials!” she says proudly. “I will always be grateful to Shriners for all they did to help me through my treatment for scoliosis and also for letting me be one of the faces of Shriners in Montana.”
Today, Ostwalt is a freshman at the University of Montana. She plans to obtain an undergraduate degree and go on to law school.
“We are changing lives every day,” says Monasmith of the hospital’s innovative pediatric specialty care, world-class research, and outstanding medical education. “Our experienced care team brings hope and healing.”
And Montana Shriners make sure kids receive it.
Fun and Philanthropy
In 1922, the Shriners took on a higher purpose. But that didn’t stop them from having fun. Instead, it became more altruistic—community-minded and philanthropy-driven.
“Each club has its own performing unit to raise money, have fun, and help kids,” explains Nielsen.
These performing units take many forms. Perhaps you’ve enjoyed the Shriner Bagpipe Band in a local parade. Maybe you’ve laughed at clowns which are
truly Shriners in disguise. Maybe you’ve experienced both and more at the Shrine Circus!
“The animals, the acrobats—[the Shrine Circus] is great entertainment,” says John Metcalf of the Great Falls Shrine Club. “We provide tickets for free to children grades K-6th in Great Falls and the surrounding area.”
“Private schools. Smalltown schools. Every grade-school kid in the area gets to see the circus,” adds fellow Shriner Bill Bailie.
While children get in for free, adult ticket sales raise funding for the Shriner Bagpipe Band. Ladies, gentlemen, and kids of all ages enjoy the community event, which features silly clowns, feats of strength and skill, death-defying acts, and trained animals. For many, this presents a unique opportunity to experience exotic animals up close. This will be the first time that some children see these animals in real life.
“You have a better appreciation when you see them in person. It’s good ol’ family entertainment,” says Bob Kampfer, president of the Great Falls Shrine Club.
While proceeds from this community event support the Bagpipe Band, the club always donates a portion to the Shriners Children’s travel fund. Other clubs contribute what they can, as well.
A large portion of the funding supplied to the Spokane hospital itself (by Montana Shrine clubs) comes from multiple Shrine golf tournaments and the East-West Shrine Game, a competition between some of the best high school football players in the state.
“It used to be played in Great Falls every year. Then in the early 2000s, it started rotating between the three Temples. That was the best thing that ever happened because we’re reaching communities so much more effectively now,” explains John Hayes, Past Potentate of the Algeria Shrine and Secretary of the East-West Shrine Game.
“In 75 years, we have raised over two million dollars. Montana now has the number one Shrine football game in the nation.”
The game operates like this: coaching staff for the East and West teams each select 40 players from high schools in their region, a maximum of five players from each school, plus one player from a Canadian high school. For five days, the players quickly learn to work as a cohesive unit, put through the paces with 3-a-day practices. Through a similar process, East-West cheerleaders are selected to represent their side of the state. They too have multiple practices a day to get ready for the big game on Saturday night.
“The kids that play, the coaches, the cheerleaders—they form relationships that will last a lifetime,” says Hayes. “As soon as the game is done, everyone swarms the field. It’s a week they’ll never forget.”
While the game is competitive, sportsmanship is vital to the spirit of the event. Players have no difficulty keeping their egos in check; they need only look to the stands, where Shriners Children’s patient ambassadors cheer them on.
“There are usually seven to eight families there with kids that have been helped by Shriners Children’s. The players can see what they’re playing for. It’s more than just a game,” says Hayes.
To this day, Shrine clubs across Montana receive correspondence and donation checks from past players of the East-West Shrine Game.
“I remember there was a doctor, he had played in the game. He became an orthopedic specialist and got involved with the Shrine hospital in Spokane,” says Hayes.
He sent the Shriners a substantial check, with a note that read, “Time for payback.”
Anyone can raise money, but to truly make a difference you need people to believe in your cause. These activities, games, and events are more than fundraisers; they are an opportunity for Shriners to raise awareness, influence hearts and minds, and reach the families that they seek to serve.
At any Shrine event you’re sure to experience two things: an incredible time and the Shriners’ incredible love for our children.
Shriners Children’s of Spokane
shrinerschildrens.org (509) 455-7844
Algeria Temple (Helena)
algeriashrinersinternational.org (406) 442-5305
Al Bedoo Temple (Billings)
albedooshrine.org (406) 259-4384
Bagdad Temple (Butte)
East-West Shrine Game