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Thousands of Shriners set to converge on Orillia in June

Event will feature massive parade in downtown Orillia on June 9

An Orillia man who heads up the largest Shrine Temple in Canada is bringing the group’s Annual Ceremonial to the Sunshine City this summer.

Tom Woodrow, who was elected Potentate of the Rameses Shrine Temple last year, thought it made sense to stage the huge yearly celebration in his hometown.

“We’ve had it here a few times before and we always put on a good show in Orillia,” said Woodrow. “The Shriners love to come to Orillia.”

This year’s ‘ceremonial’ will be held June 7-10 and is expected to attract 1,500 to 2,000 Shriners from all over Ontario. The highlight, for locals at least, will likely be the massive Shriners parade that will invade the downtown core on Saturday, June 9 from 1 to 3 p.m.

“The parade is huge,” said Woodrow, noting the lengthy procession will include a pirate ship, train, a mock Maid of the Mist, multiple bands, fire trucks and lots of “pomp and circumstance.”

While the parade is the biggest public demonstration during the event, there is much more on the agenda for the participants. There’s a golf tournament, a Friday night dance at ODAS Park and the highlight, for many, is Saturday night’s dinner at Casino Rama.

“That’s where we do an initiation of new members,” Woodrow explained. “It’s a big deal for our new guys. And Casino Rama is a great venue. The guys still talk about the last time it was there.”

While many people equate the Shriners with their trademark fez and the quirky mini cars they race around in during parades, the club is about much more than that, says Woodrow.

“We’re not there to make businesses better, we’re there to make humanity better,” said Woodrow, who has been a Shriner for 36 years.

Founded in 1872 by 13 men belonging to the Masonic Order, the Shrine Club was established to provide fun and fellowship for its members. But as the organization grew, its members decided to dedicate their efforts to helping others by establishing an official Shrine philanthropy – a network of specialized hospitals that have provided medical care to more than 900,000 children.

“When you hear the stories about the kids whose lives have been transformed at one of our hospitals … that’s what keeps you going,” said Woodrow, noting “it’s a labour of love” to be working for such a good cause.

He recounted many inspirational stories. But one stands out, he says. It’s a story of a little lad from Barrie, suffering from a severe birth defect; a boy whom doctors said would never walk.

However, he was able to get help – for free – at a Shriners Hospital for Children. It changed his life.

“That boy walked out and thanked us at one of our events,” said Woodrow, fighting back emotion. “It was incredible to see and to hear his story. He will be back at our Annual Ceremonial to give us an update … we’re all looking forward to that.”

Today, there are 22 Shriners Hospitals for Children dedicated to improving the lives of children. The hospitals focus on four specialized areas of care: orthopedic care, burn care, spinal cord injury and cleft lip and palate care.

“The budget for those hospitals is $780 million a year,” said Woodrow. “The work they do is incredible.”

The money for that budget comes from Shrine clubs world-wide. The challenge is membership in those clubs is declining. Woodrow said nationally the Shriners once had 900,000 members. Today, there is less than 250,000. It’s a trend being seen in Orillia.

“There used to be about 140 of us in Orillia and now we’re at about 75,” said Woodrow. “I joined in my 20s, but a lot of people seem to want to wait until they’re older. We’re really trying to get more young people involved.”

While the numbers are shrinking, the local contingent of Shriners is active and engaged, said Woodrow. In fact, a group of about two dozen volunteers has been working steadily for almost two years to organize the June event; they have been dubbed Woody’s Warriors.

“They have been fantastic and have worked hard to make sure everything goes well,” said Woodrow. “It’s going to be a great weekend.”

To kick off the weekend, a Shriners Flag will be raised at the Opera House May 28 and Orillia Mayor Steve Clarke will proclaim June 4-10 Shrine Week in Orillia.

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