Long-time member hailed as trailblazer who paved the way for women to serve in higher positions in Lions Clubs, both locally and internationally
LOYALTY — that word came to mind the moment I stepped into the office of Datin Hajah Ellis Suriyati Omar.
The last time I was there was about two decades ago, when she was the Lions Council Chairperson of Multiple District 308 (Malaysia-Singapore-Brunei).
Her vast collection of Lions’ items and souvenirs adorning her showcases, as well as the lush display of Lions bannerettes, posters, and pictures on her walls, impressed me.
I still have the marble ballpoint pen that she gave me as a souvenir from her trip. It bears her name and the abbreviation of her Lions post.
Ellis’ sentimental attachment to her calling has only grown stronger after 20 years. Her vast collection of Lions mementos from around the world including medals, badges, banners, literature and pictures, lavishly displayed from the entrance of her hall all the way into her office room, is a visible testament to her passionate dedication to Lions Club causes.
The private museum is her pride. Some of the souvenirs are beautiful works of art such as the lion artefacts of different sizes and also the colours she has received from around the world.
The tradition of giving souvenirs in the voluntary society is very much alive. It promotes further the spirit of camaraderie and volunteerism in the members.
Her wall-to-wall collection is a beautiful reminder of the giving culture. She treasures even the smallest items received such as the countless badges, key chains, stickers and simple ballpoint pens. Her own generosity of giving is heart-warming and it is not a wonder that she remains an active Lion even at international level.
A new home for her ever-expanding collection is on the way. This is also in light of her visitors, particularly Lions from other parts of the world, who stop by her office whenever they are in the state for conferences or other Lions events.
The museum is about the only one of its kind internationally.
“There had been another one before, belonging to a SEA Area Lions leader in the Philippines, but sadly, it was lost in a big flood a number of years ago,” she told thesundaypost.
The museum can be hailed as her trophy for a lifelong contribution in serving humanity without boundary, in line with the Lions Clubs’ mission of serving their communities and supporting those in need through humanitarian services and grants that impact lives globally, and encouraging peace and international understanding.
“Lionism is my blood,” said Ellis, currently the Area Leader of Lions Club International Foundation (LCIF) for Philippines, Singapore, Brunei and Guam – a post she has held since 2017.
Her active involvement in volunteerism began when she was invited by the then-president of the Lioness Club of Miri to become a member of the society in 1979.
The invitation came very timely as the young Ellis had just resigned as an air stewardess to follow her husband on a work transfer to the quiet oil town.
Volunteerism, as she anticipated, would add more meaning to her life. She became the club’s secretary, an office she held for a couple of years before returning to Kuching with her husband.
Long-serving Lions Club member
Soon after her return, she became a member of the Lioness Club of Kuching, where she served on the board of directors as first and second vice-president, respectively, and dedicated herself to organising fundraising events and other community service projects.
During the process, she discovered that there were few opportunities for women to serve at the international level because the Lions Club constitution, at the time, prohibited women from joining the club.
When the International Board of Directors amended the Lions Club Constitution to admit both men and women in 1987, Ellis fought for her Lioness club to be converted to Lions Club of Kuching City.
Despite opposition from some Lionesses, the club became the first Lioness club to be converted to a Lions club in Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, with her as the charter president.
Ellis continued to pave the way for other women to serve in higher positions in Lions Clubs both locally and internationally by being the first woman to hold a number of key positions in the male-dominated sphere. Indeed, she was the first woman to hold the post of District Governor of Multiple District (MD) 308, and the Council Chairman of MD 308, respectively.
“If the constitution was not amended, we would continue to be under the Lions and thereby, lose a lot of opportunities to serve at international level no matter how competent we might be. We need more women’s representation there,” she pointed out.
Lions International director
One of her most notable accomplishments was serving as an International Director from 2008 to 2010, making her the first woman in South East Asia and the third in Lions Club International to hold the position. This made her a possible candidate for the International Third Vice-President position in the near future. Only two women have served as vice-president since the club’s inception in 1917.
“I don’t dream. I believe in working hard towards what I aim for – and then, whatever will be, will be,” said Ellis, who is currently involved in the ongoing worldwide fundraising project, ‘Campaign 100’.
“Our goal is to raise US$300 million for the foundation, and we’re almost there as we have already reached US$297 million.
“The foundation is expanding Lions’ commitment to the communities, focusing on vision, youth, disaster relief and humanitarian causes.”
Ellis travels frequently, most of the time alone, as part of her duties as a dedicated leader.
“I enjoy travelling, but only God knows how much I dislike travelling alone, (but) I don’t have a choice.”
She leads humanitarian missions to disaster and poverty-stricken areas in various countries, in addition to international conferences, conventions and talks.
“I’m thankful to God that I can bring Lions from Malaysia to do community service in other countries. I have seen poverty, starving children and disaster areas at close quarters.
“When you sit next to starving children or give them a bowl of porridge with a sausage and an egg each, your heart would break as you could see the look in their eyes as if they were asking for more.
“Reaching out to the poor and those suffering takes a lot of sweat and tears, but these are the things that motivate me to continue serving.
“Having seen all that, I’m thankful that the poor, the needy and other less-fortunate people in our country are being taken care of by the government, in one way or another.
“There are more humanitarian needs outside Malaysia. And it takes a strong leader with a heart to bring volunteers to get there,” she said.
A pioneer of Lions Nursing Home
Ellis is one of the pioneer Lions who started the Lions Nursing Home with the support from various institutions, generous donors and other Lions Clubs in 1992.
Located in the vicinity of Stutong Baru in Kuching and regarded as the only nursing home in Malaysia operating under Lions’ logo, it is a non-profit facility aimed at helping the lower-income groups cope with caring for their aged parents.
“The toughest time in my life, and also for the rest of the Lions, in managing the home has been the last two years because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We had to find ways to protect the home, the staff and the residents from being further affected. We’re also grateful to members of the public who donated generously in terms of PPE (personal protective equipment) including gloves and masks, as well as sanitisers, in response to the appeals made by the Lions,” said Ellis, also the chairperson of the nursing home.
“We want to continue with the home as long as we can. The tough times that we went through together during the long pandemic, have made us stronger. We have become more united and resilient in our voluntary pursuit for the wellbeing of the community.”
In this respect, Ellis highlighted the famous adage: ‘Charity begins at home’.
“I grew up seeing my late mother treat people with kindness and always willing to help those in need, despite the fact that she did not have much herself.
“She was a teacher, who also ran a grocery store in the village, where she would give rather than sell to those in need.
“These virtues are ingrained in me.”
Ellis credits her long-term involvement in volunteerism to her husband, who has been morally and financially supportive of her work.
“Without him, I would not have progressed this far in this area, which requires a significant amount of my time.”
For Ellis, family remains her top priority and she always makes time for them.
“I’ve always believed that in order to help others, we must first help ourselves, our families, and become self-sufficient,” she pointed out.