Life Lessons on Giving Back

Many of us are dreaming of getting back to things like weekend barbecues, concerts or our favorite restaurant. Carl Oken, the Voluntary Service Representative at the Castle Point VA in New York, is dreaming of getting back to his regular volunteer duties.

Carl Oken, at left, delivering supplies to the VA last year.

The Castle Point VA Medical Center is currently closed to volunteers, to help protect the veterans there. Oken is still finding ways to help though, by coordinating with recreation staff and the Volunteer Services department.  He’s still making sure the newspaper is delivered, canteen books are distributed, and veterans have the hygiene supplies they need. He’s not forgetting about other essentials like coffee and supplies for ice cream socials.

Impressed by his passion and ability to adapt, we followed up to ask why he does this work for veterans. Here’s what he said.

As a young man I would ask my parents about their volunteer activities, which included things like den mother, Little League umpire , volunteer firefighter, cooking at our house of worship or simply helping a friend going through a tough time. The answer I received was, “You need to help those who need it and thank God you don’t need it”. That’s how I learned to give back.

My “give back” is through our nation’s veterans. My dad served in the Army during the Korean War and my uncle was at Normandy and Northern Africa during WWII.

I volunteer for veterans because of the feeling you receive when a homeless Veteran is eating a hot meal, or when you sit down to share a meal with other people who don’t have a dining room table. I love being welcomed with smiles and thanks when organizing Bingo games at the VA, and being asked “Are you coming back next month?.

We have veterans throughout our communities who just need a little smile, a hello or some conversation. One hour a month can bring a veteran some cheer, relief and pleasure.

Please get out there and give back, just an hour a month for Veterans. It is so rewarding, and they need you so much.

Thank you and remember, “So long as there are veterans, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks will never forget them”.

Want to learn more about the Voluntary Service program? Visit our webpage.

The Service Continues

Richard Ellis Hill

Did you know that more than 40% of Elks members are veterans?

Take a look at the results of a recent survey done by the Elks magazine for more information.

To highlight some of these members, we’re starting a new series called The Service Continues.

The first veteran and Elk to be featured is Richard Ellis Hill, currently the Exalted Ruler of Coalinga, Calif., Lodge No. 1613.

Hill volunteered for the Marine Corp in May 1967.

He was in the 1st Battalion, 5th marines, 81 mortars. After boot camp he was sent to Vietnam Quang Tri  in September 1967. In November 1967 he was moved to Phu Bai.

On February 10, 1968 he was sent to Hue city and fought in the bloodiest battle of the Tet Offensive and was wounded.  He was hit with shrapnel in both legs on February 16, 1968 and wasn’t evacuated out until a day later February 17, 1968.

The photo below of a Patton tank carrying wounded U.S. Marines would become emblematic of the Battle of Huế—one of the most famous photographs from the Vietnam War and one of the great images in the annals of combat photography.

In this photo, Richard Hill is the the farthest to the right.

The photograph would appear on March 8 in Life magazine, part of a six-page color portfolio of powerful images from Huế. The photographer John Olson would go on to win the Robert Capa Award for these photographs.

Hill was medevacked to Japan. In addition to his wounds he also had malaria, trichinosis and hook worms. 

After he recovered from all his wounds and various ailments he returned to Vietnam for another tour.

In 1969 while fighting in A Shau Valley in Vietnam he was hit by shrap metal from a rocket which penetrated his stomach, arms, eye. He was medevacked to Da Nang, Vietnam and then to Okinawa, Japan for surgery and then was sent back to the United States.

He was assigned as the sergeant of the honor guard and placed on burial detail. He suffered a severe skin condition from exposure to agent orange and was honorably discharged in December 1970.

Hill’s boots, pictured above, were displayed as part of The Marines and Tet exhibit at the Newseum in Washington, D.C..

Sgt. Richard Ellis Hill received two purple hearts and several other medals during his distinguished service in Vietnam.

Today, he keeps busy as Exalted Ruler of his Lodge. In May he will join the National Veterans Service Committee team as the California-Hawaii Elks Association East Central District Chair, continuing his service to country and community.

Advice From a State Chair

We reached out to Minnesota State Veterans Chair, Thomas Kramin, to find out how he and other Minnesota volunteers accomplish so much. Kramin helps oversee 20 volunteers at 13 Voluntary Service facilities, along with dozens of local and state projects. He shared his thoughts about managing projects, and recruiting and supporting volunteers.

ENVSC:  How have you or your Lodge initiated partnerships?

Thomas Kramin: When it comes to getting the community involved, my experience is: If you don’t ask, the answer will always be “NO!” When we have an idea for a community event for our veterans, we find the local Service Clubs and ask for their assistance.  Offering them name recognition in the advertising of it and turning it into a joint event always makes the program more successful.

Ronald Reagan once said, “There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit!” Minnesota is proof that this quote is truth. Elks are Doers, not Talkers!”

ENVSC: What do you do to get more Lodge members involved in veterans’ events or fundraisers?

TK: First of all, approach the members with a project that you have a heartfelt passion for. Passion creates Passion.

Also, make sure you have a fluid plan on how to accomplish the project. When you ask for help, you open the door for outside opinions on how to do it. Reply kindly, with something like , “I’ll take that under advisement!”. Some ideas are much better than what you came up with, which will alter your plan and make it that much more successful.

ENVSC: How do you encourage or motivate the volunteers in your state to keep up with reporting or other requirements they may be reluctant to complete?

TK: First off, as a State Rep, appoint those who have a passion to serve our veterans. You have the power to replace those who are not. This is 95% of the battle of keeping good representation at facilities. The other 5% is the threat of losing the funds that support their passion.

You must also realize that your representatives are volunteers, working on a volunteer income. Life gets in the way sometimes and you must remember the volunteers have families and bills to take care of first. Gentle nudges for reminders work better than dropping the hammer on them for being late in the reporting.  If it gets to the point that you need to continually remind them to complete their requirements, they may not be the best fit for the role at that time.  

ENVSC: How would you describe the planning process someone who is interested in organizing a large event for the first time?

TK: You cannot do it alone. Find quality people to help with the project, lay out the fluid plan to them, and delegate tasks to them without micromanaging them. Present a task that needs to be accomplished and let them do the rest. This does two things; it sparks their imagination on how to accomplish the task, and gives them a sense of ownership in the project.

ENVSC: Do you have any favorite memories from the past year to encourage volunteers in their work with veterans?

TK: We did a Welcome Home Kit for a veteran a few months ago. As we walked into his empty apartment with the supplies, the Veteran started to shake a little with wet eyes. He said the contacted every service organization requesting help and the only ones who stepped up were the Elks. He said, “The Elks only asked one question, ‘What do I need to make life better?’ and here you are!”

At our Veterans Outdoor Program, where we offer a few days away from the veterans home to hunt on a National Guard Training Facility, a 75 year old Army Veteran approached me and shook my hand for an extended amount of time, choked up and said, “You have no idea how important this event is to us! Thank you, thank you, thank you!” 

You tend to lose sight on the impact after doing it for 12 years, but comments like that relight a fire to continue the work!

ENVSC: Is there anything else you’d like to share with Elks who are considering volunteering for veteran projects?

TK: Helping veterans is more addictive than any drug available on the market. The sense of life accomplishment and self-worth you feel in your soul afterwards is so overpowering that you want to do more. You search for things to expand on, and you realize that volunteering pays more than any paycheck you will ever receive in your work career. 

Volunteers Drive Success

Since the Welcome Home Program started, Hopkins, Minn., Lodge No. 2221 has provided more than 370 veterans with Welcome Home Kits. And Last year alone, they received $20,000 in grant funding from the ENF.

How do they accomplish so much? Volunteers! Here, the Lodge shares its tips on how to get members involved in charitable projects.

Here are a few things to consider as you begin.

Getting Started

  • Build relationships with fellow members. Get to know them as individuals and build a friendship. They are more likely to volunteer and stay volunteering.
  • Be somebody that you would like to go volunteer with. Lead by example.
  • Practice good and open communication. Be clear about expectations and volunteer roles, i.e. when, why, how long, what to do etc.
  • Include volunteers in the decision making. Let them have freedom to do it their own way. Let go of some of the control. As long as it gets done, don’t sweat the details.
  • Have a program that resonates with people. For example, supporting our veterans really resonates with our members.
  • Share the story of the people you are helping. This lets people understand who and why they are volunteering, and why it is important.

Understanding people’s motivations will help you recruit volunteers.

Why do people volunteer?

  • Tradition and values
  • Builds connections and relationships with others
  • Feels good, lets people know they can make a difference
  • It gives people purpose
  • A good family activity
  • Helps kids / grandkids learn to give back

But first, you have to ask people to volunteer!

Mechanisms of asking for help:

  • Personal, face to face invitation
  • Social media / Facebook posts
  • Ads in the newsletter or weekly update
  • Posters or flyers at the Lodge

Different people may react to projects and invitations differently. Consider motivations, time constraints, preferences, etc.

Common Types of Volunteers:

Type Description Motivation
Passionate Very passionate for a cause/project, may have been personally impacted by it. Highly motivated already. May need to channel energies.
Do Gooder Wants to give back in some way to the Lodge or the community. Projects where it’s clear who they are helping will drive participation.
Socializer Loves to meet people, work with friends, and socialize. Projects requiring a group of people are a good fit.
Curious Explores different opportunities to find what fits. May not know what they want. Don’t be disappointed if it isn’t a good fit.
Feed the Ego Wants to be seen as participating and included in activities. Publishing photos in newsletters, email blasts and social media is important to satisfies this need.
Voluntold Needs direction – may have a spouse that volunteers. Find a small, discrete task that this person can do. Some people need / want strong direction.
Incentivized Needs an incentive. Provide some incentive whether it’s food, drink, etc.

Now, keep the momentum going.

How to Drive Member Participation:

  • Be specific. But also keep it simple.
  • Be honest about time commitment, responsibilities, expectations.
  • Differentiate organizers and helpers.
  • Focus on the volunteer experience.
  • Create a friendly, social environment.
  • Learn what energizes your volunteers.
  • Manage task completion vs. volunteer experience.
  • Structure as a family activity when possible to increase volunteer pool.
  • Welcome them to the event, and thank them at the end.
  • Ask for feedback aka what worked, what didn’t work, what did they learn.
  • Survey your volunteers regularly to ask for their suggestions and feedback.

Great! Now that you’ve got the volunteers, you’ll want to keep them. Here are some tips on volunteer retention.

How to Keep Volunteers:

  • Retention starts with a positive experience.
  • Be organized yet willing to adapt.
  • Be flexible. Break duties into shifts or smaller pieces.
  • Value the volunteer’s participation.
  • Set realistic expectations.
  • Ask them to participate again!

The Value of Teamwork

Harry S. Truman reportedly said, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish, if you don’t care who gets the credit.” That’s particularly good advice for volunteers looking to serve veterans. According to the IRS, there are more than 45,000 veterans service nonprofits in the United States today. Working together may be the only way to solve problems for our nation’s veterans.  

For advice on how to start and build good partnerships, we asked another Kansas City Elk member, Darrell Quinley, for his advice. As a Representative at both the Kansas City VA Medical Center and the St. Michael’s Center (which provides veterans with safe, stable housing), Quinley knows that partnerships are key to accomplishing goals. Here’s his wisdom, gleaned from years of volunteering for veterans and working as a funeral director.

  • Find as much common ground as you can; family, children, activities, veterans in the family, etc.
  • Don’t take up a great deal of their time at the onset. Ask for their business card and follow up a few days later.
  • Don’t give up! First or even second impressions may not be a true indication of future working relationships.
  • Be truthful, be consistent, be prepared.
  • Try to always take the high road on any contentious discussion, or better yet avoid them completely.
  • Be complimentary.  Thank them for what they do. Find no fault in their operation.
  • Tell them you have Elks members just waiting to help veterans.

Above all go in with a positive attitude. Your heart shares their heart, in the love of service to veterans.

Serving Veterans on the Gulf Coast


Hello! My name is Brianna, and I work for the Elks National Veterans Service Commission as an Elks Scholar Fellow.

I recently had the privilege to be invited by the Elks National Foundation to come along as a chaperone on the Elks Scholar Service Trip in Biloxi, Mississippi. Two Elks Scholar Fellows and nineteen Elks Scholars traveled to the Mississippi Gulf Coast to give back to the community and say thank you to the Elks who helped make our scholarships possible. We worked on a variety of service projects that ranged from working with children at the Boys and Girls Club after-school program to environmental conservation efforts with the Mississippi Land Trust, clearing invasive species and trash from a local bayou. We had lots of fun and adventures, even running into a (friendly) alligator while kayaking and picking up trash in the Pascagoula River!

We pulled 3 bikes, 5 shopping carts, and plenty of trash and brush from this bayou!

Cleaning up the rivers on kayak – watch out for gators!

Dinner at the Gulfport Lodge

As the Elks Scholar Fellow for the National Veterans Service Commission, I was especially excited we were going to be able to visit the local VA hospital for one of our service days, serving side-by-side with Elks members from the Gulfport, Miss., Lodge No. 978 to spend some time with the veterans residing in long-term care.

Packing gift bags with personal care items for veterans!

After a special dinner hosted by Gulfport, Miss., Lodge No. 978, Elks Scholars worked with Lodge members to fill 100 gift bags with personal care supplies such as shampoo, lotion, and toothbrushes. These would be given as gifts the following day to veterans residing in the Community Living Center (CLC) at the VA.

Mississippi State Veterans Chair Craig Huch helped coordinate and set up the entire visit for us at the Gulf Coast Veterans Healthcare System the next day. We learned that the hospital expansion was built relatively recently, after Hurricane Katrina. We were impressed by how beautiful the buildings were and how innovative the design. It was also HUGE. The design of the Community Living Center is such that residents living there long-term are placed in a particular “neighborhood.” These neighborhoods are specially designed so that individual rooms branch off of a large common space or living area where residents can socialize and build community. Research shows that this structure improves residents’ health and wellbeing by promoting a healthy social life.

The Elks Scholars visited several CLC neighborhoods, including ones specifically for residents experiencing Alzheimer’s, dementia, and hospice. We were able to present Blu-Ray players to each of the 24 neighborhoods – a major Christmas gift from the Gulfport Lodge! These Blu-Ray players will provide great entertainment to the VA residents in their common spaces.

We also distributed the 100 gift bags full of personal care items to individual veterans and spent some quality time conversing with them. Several veterans took the time to pull out each item individually and appreciate the quality of the gifts. They told us that many groups had already brought them gifts closer to Christmas time, so they appreciated that we were able to space it out and come visit a few weeks later.

Elks Scholars with Gulfport Elks after filling all the gift bags

As a special token from the Gulfport Lodge, the Scholars also gave veterans small stars, cut out from American flags that were too worn to continue flying. We handed them out to the veterans with a special message thanking them for their service. Some, already familiar with the Gulfport Lodge and their service at the VA, had one in their rooms already; others seeing it for the first time were incredibly touched by the gesture and told us they would treasure it.

As many of our Elks Scholars will tell you, it was a privilege to be able to converse with many of the veterans about their families, their military experiences, their favorite pastimes, and (of course), their favorite sports teams!

One scholar learned that the veteran she was visiting had worked overnight shifts for United Airlines in San Francisco doing the very same job as her father! They talked at length, and the veteran encouraged the scholar to find her local Air Force recruiter and join, like him.

Another especially friendly and enthusiastic veteran, who had a motorized wheelchair and spunky ponytails, could only communicate with us using one word answers but did so with great energy and vibrance. We asked her about her military experience, and she told us, “Army! Army! Army!” When Craig joined us, greeting her by name fondly, he told us she was a regular at the Bingo events hosted by the Elks every month.

Yet another memorable veteran, 102 years old, complained that they had just made him put his car in storage – still sharp as ever, he looked no older than 75 and we had no doubt he would still able to drive if he had been allowed!

The scholars had a valuable experience meeting veterans from so many different backgrounds who were willing to share their stories with the younger generation and spend some time together. Many thanks to the Gulfport Elks and the Gulf Coast Veterans Healthcare System for facilitating this visit!

Elks and Scholars at the Gulf Coast Veterans Healthcare System

Happy ENF Month from the ENVSC!

By Mary Morgan

I was an employee of the Elks National Foundation for 6 years, and I’ve been a donor for longer. Now that I work at the Elks National Veterans Service Commission, nearly our entire budget comes in the form of a grant from the Elks National Foundation.

So, you could say I have many reasons to celebrate ENF Month. And you’d be correct.

My first job at the ENF was in the Donor Services department, which processes the donations that come in, maintains all donor records, and helps to ensure that every gift is acknowledged.

Often, donations would come in with jokes, notes and updates. Reading these was one of the joys of the job, and it helped to deepen my connection with our donors and supporters.

Donors like Roy aka Mouse Weichold who always sent in jokes with his donations. Mouse passed away a few years ago, but here’s one of his favorite jokes: Why are the streets of Paris lined with trees? So the Germans can march in the shade. 

One such note really made an impact on me. It arrived with a $10 donation, and a note that said, “I’m retired and on a fixed income, so this is all I can give.”

That’s it. Just a short, simple note from a donor who was willing to sacrifice so he could contribute. If you’re strapped for cash, $10 can be a decent amount of money. It could buy a much-needed meal at a restaurant, a cup of coffee every day for a week, or a couple pieces of pie for you and a friend.

This Elk could have used that money to buy himself something he wanted or even needed, but instead he donated it. He trusted the Elks National Foundation to use those funds wisely. I don’t take that trust lightly. In fact, I’ve thought of that note often, when I was working for the Community Investments Program and now that I’m with the Elks National Veterans Service Commission.

It’s also a great reminder that in this day and age when the news is full of stories about millionaires and billionaires pledging vast sums of money, that it is regular people that have the power to make a difference in their communities.

The Elks National Foundation is powered by the donations and support of hundreds of thousands of those people, who believed in its mission over the past 90 years. Its programs are powered by those same people. I’m proud to call myself one of them.

Happy ENF Month!