If you were the member of a national organization that offered you the opportunity and encouragement to make as big an impact in your community as you could offering services and programs for youth and veterans – you would have every right to feel proud of your accomplishments.
“The Elks are a huge piece of the puzzle for our kids,” said Sault Ste. Marie Michigan Area Schools cross country head coach and middle school teacher Jim Martin. “I don’t know where we would be today without them. I do know our cross country running program would not be as big as it is and we wouldn’t have as many kids participating.”
New York City was home to the first lodge of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, founded in the late 1860s. The organization has since grown to about 2,000 lodges and over 900,000 members throughout the United States, Guam, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Panama.
Director of the Chicago based Elks National Veterans Service Commission and Assistant to the Grand Secretary, Robert Hennings said the Elks will always do everything in their power to provide aid and make the lives of veterans and those in active service as comfortable as they can. “Whatever is in our power to do – we will do so. Our motto is “So long as there are veterans, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks will never forget them,” he said.
Before the first Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital was ever built, the Elks organized and equipped the first two base hospitals to reach France in World War I. Then in 1918 a 700-bed Reconstructive Hospital was built in Boston to accommodate wounded service members and was given to the federal government by the Elks. That hospital, according to the Elks website, was the forerunner of today’s VA medical facilities.
Last year the cash value of donated hours served by the Elks and their helpers for veteran’s service programs was valued at more than $30 million. A total of 239,947 volunteers – with 166,948 of those being Elks – donated their time to 1,075,856 veterans who participated in programs offered by the Elks.
JoAnn Aldridge knows all about volunteering to help out in her local community. The secretary for Elks Lodge No. 1556 in Cedar City, Utah, she is the lodge’s former treasurer, was the first woman to be president of the Utah Elks Association, the first woman district deputy for the national Grand Lodge for the state of Utah and the first woman to be the Exalted Ruler in her lodge. In addition to holding office as secretary, she is also the plans coordinator to the Grand Lodge for the state of Utah.
Aldridge said lodge 1556 does a lot for their community, placing an emphasis on youth and veterans. In addition to making up Christmas food baskets to give to needy families and handing out 100 certificates for new shoes valued at about $1,500, their lodge gives every widow in Cedar City a box of chocolates for Christmas.
Suzanne Carter is a member of Elks Lodge No. 711 in Eureka, Utah. She is also the vice president and president elect for the Utah Ladies Elks, which has about 340 members. Her husband has been a member of the Elks for 25 years and five years ago Carter also became an official member. She said, “You name it and we have volunteered.” Their lodge raises money for a camp for special needs youth, purchases presents for children at Christmas whose families can’t afford to, helps local youth with college scholarships and hosts chili dinners with their local high school band and splits the proceeds with them. It’s what they do.
In addition to what is being done within lodges at the community level, there are programs offered to veterans by the Elks on a national level. Those include the Adopt-a-Veteran Program that got its start in 1980 in Michigan and last year lodges across the country adopted 47,000 veterans who were hospitalized. According to Hennings, the program offers hope in place of loneliness and lets veterans know they haven’t been forgotten.
Other veteran programs include the Army of Hope, which assists families of military reservists and the National Guard who have been called to active duty. Another big project, the Veterans Leather Program is the main source of tanned leather and hides used by veterans in the VA health care system for recreational and occupation therapy.
Freedom Grants! is a program that awards $2,000 to each of 75 Elks lodges that submit proposals to support veterans and active duty military.
Hennings said the Elks as an organization feel veterans have given up a lot for all of us. “They put their lives on the line and sometimes have been grievously wounded. Wounded or not, they all serve and gave up a large part of their life to do that – to defend the freedoms we hold dear. We feel we owe them a debt,” he said.
Across the country lodges are supporting troops and their families in many different ways. Some by bringing National Guard units to the lodges for meals, purchasing Christmas gifts for children of active members of the military and sometimes providing financial support and helping a family with rent. “We try to live up to our motto every day,” Hennings said. Lodges at the state level, Hennings said, are very independent of the central Elks headquarters. Each lodge in every state has to follow certain rules and are responsible for reports on membership and charitable activities. But each state has its own budget and can only raise money within its own borders. A lodge cannot raise funds outside of its own community.
Elk lodges at the community level take every opportunity to bring a smile to the faces of local veterans. For example, veterans at the VA hospital/nursing home in Salt Lake City were treated to a Valentines Day visit from their local Elks lodge, including Robert D. Pagnani, the Utah Elks state veterans chairman. One hundred and fifty gift bags containing small gift items and about 6,000 valentines made or donated by local school children and lodge members were personally hand delivered to veterans by the Elks.
The Elks play a major role in supporting the efforts of the VA and working with the Veteran’s Affairs Voluntary Service (VAVS). There are 152 VA hospitals throughout the country and the Elks have volunteers placed within 151 of them. Hennings said the Elks are allowed to have one VAVS representative and up to three deputies at each hospital who are then allowed to have additional volunteers under them as needed for additional volunteer activities. “Elks are involved on a daily basis with veterans, I have 600 VAVS representatives and deputy representatives, but a lodge may have many more. We have thousands and thousands of volunteers out there working with veterans and active duty military,” he said. As the director of the Elks National Veterans Service Commission, Hennings has an annual budget of more than $1 million but said the lodges spend 20 or 30 times that amount. Most of the funds from individual lodges comes from membership dues, local fundraising efforts and grants from the Elks National Foundation and the Elks National Veterans Service Commission.
Other services and programs offered by the Elks include more than $3.65 million in college scholarships to high school seniors each year, yearly hoop shoot contests for youth ages 8 to 13, drug awareness programming, community investment programs and other youth activities and educational programs, including a dictionary and thesaurus project where dictionaries are given out to third grade students in both tribal and non-tribal schools and thesauruses are handed out to fifth graders. “At every local level there is a tremendous outreach to everyone in need – children, the disadvantaged – every state has a major project they work together on; but veterans have always been a group dear to our hearts,” Hennings said.
Hennings said that because the Elks have such a large representation throughout the country in the VA health care system, he also serves on the National Advisory Committee (NAC) of Veterans Affairs Voluntary Service.
Hennings said total contributions made by Elks members and their helpers last year pertaining to volunteer veterans service programs – including cash, non-cash, hours worked and miles traveled – amounted to a value of $43,378,921. According to the office of the Elks National Veterans Service Commission, it has been determined by the federal government that the cost of work done by charitable organizations such as the Elks would cost about $21.36 an hour if the same work that is now being done by volunteers was performed by social care and government agencies.
Martin (Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians) joined the ranks of the Elks this year and said they always give selflessly and then some.
For more information on the Elks National Veterans Service Commission, visit www.elks.org/programs/vets.cfm. For more information on the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, visit http://www.elks.org/.