Civitan International is an association of community service clubs founded in 1917. The organization aims "to build good citizenship by providing a volunteer organization of clubs dedicated to serving individual and community needs with an emphasis on helping people with developmental disabilities." The organization includes 27,000 members (referred to as Civitans) in almost 1,000 clubs around the world.
In 1917, a group of Birmingham, Alabama businessmen were members of the local Rotary club. Many of the men thought that the club focused too much on increasing the business of club members, so they surrendered their club's charter. Led by Courtney Shropshire, a local doctor, they formed an independent club. They named the club Civitan, derived from the Latin word civitas, meaning citizenship.
The United States entered World War I one month after the club formed. With all attention focused on the war, Civitan remained only a local service club. Some of the earliest projects the club undertook supported soldiers, helped European war orphans, and encouraged voter participation through the payment of poll taxes.
Shropshire envisioned an international organization of Civitan clubs dedicated to serving humanity. The process to incorporate was begun, and the International Association of Civitan Clubs was founded in 1920. The organization saw rapid growth. By June 1922 at the second international convention, delegates from 115 clubs attended. There were more than 3,300 Civitans throughout the United States.
Many early Civitan projects helped those who were less fortunate. By the 1950s, Civitan's focus had shifted to helping the developmentally disabled. The Civitan International Foundation, established in 1960, provides financial support for many organizations and programs which benefit the developmentally disabled. By 2005, the Civitan International Foundation had provided $13,000,000 in grants to the UAB Civitan International Research Center, the first institution in the United States to focus solely on researching developmental disabilities.
On a local level, individual Civitan clubs undertake various service projects which benefit their local communities. Examples of club projects include maintaing a section of highway (the Tyler
Civitan Club was the first to volunteer for the Adopt a Highway
program), honoring community leaders, supporting local reading programs, sponsoring children in financial need, purchasing playground equipment for developmentally disabled children, and holding events for developmentally disabled individuals. Clubs operate independently of the international organization or other clubs, leaving them free to participate in whatever service they deem appropriate.
Focus on Developmental Disabilities
While individual clubs are free to pursue their own projects, on an international level Civitan is focused on service to the developmentally disabled. This emphasis was adopted in 1956, with Civitans becoming some of the first to provide special training for teachers of developmentally disabled children.
Civitan continues to focus on assisting those with developmental disabilities. In 1990, the Civitan International Research Center was established on the campus of the University of Alabama at Birmingham with a $20,000,000 grant from the Civitan International Foundation. The Civitan International Research Center was the first institution of its kind to be focused solely on the research of developmental disabilities. Medical professionals from all over the world also come to the center for training on developmental disabilities.
Clergy Appreciation Week
One of Civitan's most significant international events is Clergy Appreciation Week
, inspired by the story of the Four Chaplains
. Begun in 1964, the interfaith
event honors the sacrifice of the Four Chaplains by encouraging citizens to thank the clergy who serve their communities. The week usually involves Civitan clubs presenting local clergy with an award or certificate of appreciation. Local mayors often sign a proclamation recognizing Clergy Appreciation Week and encouraging its observance.
Junior Civitan International
Junior Civitan International is one of Civitan's oldest and most successful programs. Students between the ages of 13 and 18 can join a Junior Civitan club at their school or in their community. Each Junior Civitan club is sponsored by a senior Civitan club and promotes student leadership, character development, and community service.
Civitan International Foundation
The Civitan International Foundation was established in 1960. The creation of the foundation allowed Civitans to make tax-deductible contributions to Civitan projects. The foundation's first program was a scholarship fund for deserving college students. Currently, a large portion of the foundation's funds help to support the UAB
Civitan International Research Center.
Candy Box Project
Many of Civitan's fundraising programs support the Civitan International Foundation. The Civitan Candy Box Project
, one of Civitan's oldest and most successful fundraising programs, has raised $50,000,000 since its inception in 1976. Civitan volunteers place boxes of mints at businesses in their community. Patrons donate money for a mint. Volunteers collect the money, keeping some for club service projects and sending the rest to the Civitan International Foundation.
Claxton Fruitcake Sales
Civitan's other important fundraiser involves the sale of Claxton Bakery's
fruitcakes. This partnership began in 1951 when a Civitan member enjoyed the cake so much that he suggested they be sold nationally as a fundraiser. Each year during the holiday season, local Civitan clubs sell millions of pounds of fruitcake. The proceeds from these sales benefit the Civitan International Foundation and its work with the developmentally disabled.
Civitan has clubs in 27 countries and maintains a strong international focus. Because of its long history of service in West Africa
, Civitan was invited by the Special Court for Sierra Leone
to monitor the war crimes
trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor
, held at the International Criminal Court
facilities in The Hague
. Civitan clubs are active in the following countries:
Several well-known individuals have been Civitans, including: