Welcome Home and Farewell

My name is Brianna Bueltmann, and I am an Elks Scholar Fellow. For the last two years, I’ve had the privilege of working for the Elks National Veterans Service Commission to serve veterans through the Welcome Home program. I was drawn to work for the ENVSC specifically because of the Elks’ commitment to help end veteran homelessness. 

Brianna Bueltmann (left) and ENVSC Programs Assistant Hannah Graber at an event celebrating the end of veteran veteran homelessless (aka functional zero) in Lake County, Illinois, just north of Chicago.

Since I started with the Elks in June 2018, we’ve helped fulfill over 1600 requests for emergency assistance in 8 cities across the country, and 175 Lodges have provided kits of home supplies for more than 3185 newly housed veterans. 

It’s been incredible to see the passion of our volunteers as they get involved in the Welcome Home program, specifically through Welcome Home Kits. Elks build relationships with veterans as they shop for basic household supplies to help newly housed veterans turn an empty apartment into a home. For many, the experience is eye-opening and transformative. Elks jump into action to involve the whole community and find out how else they help their local veterans in need. 

By far one of our most popular programs,  Welcome Home Kit program has grown over 100% in the last two years. Even through the COVID-19 pandemic, our volunteers have adapted and found ways to make sure veterans are still receiving home supplies so they don’t have to quarantine in an empty house. Whether that’s shopping online to deliver supplies to the veteran’s door or FaceTiming a veteran to watch them unpack their new gifts with excitement, Elks find a way to get the job done. The hardest part of my job is convincing Elks when they have to say “no.” 

This is where a veteran was sleeping before Vancouver, Wash., Lodge No. 823 arrived with a bed and supplies.

One of the very exciting additions to our program this past year has been being able to reimburse additional funds to buy veterans beds. We’ve seen too many photos from veterans’ homes of coffee tables pushed together to form a makeshift bed. Every veteran deserves a place to lay their head. 

For millions of Americans, especially those on a fixed income or living paycheck to paycheck, it only takes one unexpected life event for a family to find themselves on the brink of homelessness. But it often takes only a small amount of assistance to make a huge difference. 

Although eligible veterans can apply for up to $2500 through the Elks Emergency Assistance Fund, the average amount requested to secure housing is only $1570. In the last two years, we’ve been able to prevent homelessness for hundreds of veterans by assisting with crucial needs like security deposits and overdue utility bills. 

Having read hundreds of applications for assistance, I can tell you that the majority of our veterans at greatest risk of homelessness are elderly and/or disabled. An extremely limited, fixed income doesn’t leave a lot of room for things to go wrong. And for veterans already dealing with health conditions, the stress of a looming eviction can trigger both psychological and physical symptoms, from PTSD to Crohn’s disease. 

“It wasn’t just a load off my mind,” said former Marine Thomas, explaining how he felt when he received Elks assistance. “It actually made a physical difference in how I felt. It was a very big deal.”

We’ve been able to help families like Phil and Amy’s, whose lives turned upside down after being hit with a medical emergency, a car accident, and the loss of two full-time jobs all at the same time. More than just money, Elks assistance gave them peace of mind and wellbeing, a heavy burden lifted off their relationship. For the first time in five years, they were able to get caught up on their bills by Christmastime and finally give their children the gifts they deserved.

We’ve gotten to help people like Daniel, a Marine Corps veteran and single father of 6, who works 60 hours a week to provide for his family and still finds time to help his kids with their homework.

Or Rose, another former Marine and single parent, raising twin 11-year-old girls, coping with PTSD and fibromyalgia while working as an entrepreneur to empower other women to overcome obstacles and build careers that are right for their families and their lives.

“I would say that you have a chance to be a catalyst in somebody’s life,” Rose said, about Elks whose gifts make the Emergency Assistance Fund possible. “It’s a butterfly effect. Why wouldn’t you want to be that catalyst or that spark?”Now, through the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve been able to help veterans keep their homes and keep the lights turned on in spite of widespread job loss and financial insecurity.

I know our members don’t get to meet all the veterans we help or hear how their donations affect veterans’ lives, but as someone who does get to see behind the scenes, I can tell you that the impact is huge. Even though I won’t be working for the Elks anymore, I’ll be donating, participating, and rooting for the success of this program. After seeing how the Elks have been able to address a seemingly insurmountable problem like veteran homelessness, I can’t wait to see what the Elks take on next. 

Brianna posing with a very exciting delivery of food at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center food pantry.

Wheeling Right Along

One silver lining of the pandemic seems to be the recognition of Elks volunteers. Now that many members are unable to get out into the community and serve like usual, people are starting to realize just how much Elks do for veterans.

For example, we recently learned that Robert Wheeler, member of Bath, N.Y., Lodge No. 1547, was named the 2020 Volunteer of the Year at the Bath VA Medical Center!

Wheeler has been volunteering at the Bath VA for more than 30 years, and has more than 2,162 volunteer hours.

“This year our volunteer of the year is no stranger to any of us,” writes the Bath VA Staff. “Bob has helped in various locations. He is instrumental in coordinating the annual Elks Carnival, is a Patriot Guard Captain, volunteers as a volunteer driver, museum docent, patient activities and coordinates many picnics and functions here at the Bath VA.”

Clearly, Wheeler keeps busy. But his work at the VA is only part of his service. And despite his humility, the accolades are piling up.

Bob was also recently honored as the Central Southern Tier Chamber of Commerce Veteran of the Year. And, he was named the New York State Senior Volunteer of the Year for Steuben County.

“I’m grateful for the recognition,” shares Wheeler. “It inspires me to continue.”

Wheeler found time in his busy schedule to answer a few questions for us.

On his inspiration for volunteering:

I’m an Army Veteran, having enlisted in 1968. I was very fortunate to have been stationed, as a Lab Tech at Walter Reed Army MC for almost eighteen months. There I witnessed firsthand the rehabilitation of wounded warriors and the incredible influence that volunteer groups and individuals had on veterans’ recoveries.

I was honored to work for the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Bath NY for almost 30 years. As an over 40-year member of the Elks, on a regular basis I saw the positive effect that Elk Volunteers had on the lives of the patients residing at the facility.

Bob Wheeler (left), Bath VA Volunteer of the year, accepts his award from Kenneth Piazza, the Associate Director of the VA Finger Lakes Healthcare System.

On changing and adapting:

Volunteering for Veterans has changed over the past few decades.  We have become accustomed to working with long-term residents in the Domiciliary and Nursing Home. We strived to provide entertainment and recreational support to meet their ever-changing needs.

We work with Voluntary Service and Recreation staff to meet the needs of a younger, more diverse group of Veterans to include the increased needs of female Veterans. Elks do this while providing for the ongoing needs of veterans in long term care.

I see a need to focus support on the Suicide Prevention Initiative and Homeless tragedy that faces our veterans.

On his favorite part of volunteering:

There is still no substitute for face-to-face interaction between dedicated Elks Volunteers and our veterans. There is nothing, in my opinion, more important to veterans’ quality of life than knowing that Elks have not forgotten them.

“There is nothing, in my opinion, more important to veterans’ quality of life than knowing that Elks have not forgotten them.”

On his motivation:

If you believe in “paying it forward,” I can think of no better way than volunteering for veterans.

As the VAVS Representative, I can’t thank the Elks enough for their continued fiscal support during these very trying times. The funds received from the ENF/ENVSC and the New York State Major Project allow us to assist the Homeless Coordinator and staff to meet the needs of veterans in our area.