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!
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.
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.
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!