As Lodge Veterans Chair for Cynthiana, Ky., Lodge No. 438 and Voluntary Service Representative at the Lexington VA Medical Center, Brian Kinney is normally a very busy man.
Every month, Kinney coordinates support for the veterans at the VA by arranging special meals, bringing musicians into the hospital for entertainment, hosting VA residents at the Lodge for dinner as well as buying needed supplies like reading glasses, coffee and snacks, and more.
He also spends hours each week escorting veterans to their appointments, offering directions around the VA campus, and sitting with veterans while they wait for appointments.
Kinney, who normally visits the VA Medical Center anywhere between 8 and 12 times each month, has had to stay home the past few months and wait until volunteers are cleared to visit the facility again.
Now that he has some extra time on his hands, we reached out to Kinney to ask him what makes a successful volunteer.
Consider your strengths:
“The reason I volunteer at a VA is because I have a lot in common with the patients coming in for appointments. I understand what they might be going through and they feel comfortable talking to a fellow veteran.”
“They like telling some of their stories and it makes them happy because they don’t have to explain what they are talking about while sharing.”
Do what you love:
“I think the most important thing about volunteering is you have to enjoy what you are doing and who you are helping. I enjoy volunteering at the Lexington VA Medical Center because it gives me a purpose and something to do after I retired from the service and a civilian job.”
Why he knows it is worth it:
“We help the veterans feel that someone cares by providing help to their appointments, the information they need to get there, or just being a listening ear to their stories. It makes them feel that someone cares and appreciates what they have done for their country.”
What he gets from the experience:
“We always get THANK YOUS from both veterans and the VA staff which gives me a warm feeling and makes me feel that I am making a difference in their lives.”
Recommendations to other Elks:
“I would volunteer no matter what, but I am glad to get help from the Elks in providing for my fellow veterans.”
“If you want to volunteer, you need to decide what you enjoy doing and then DO IT.”
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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:
Very passionate for a cause/project, may have been personally impacted by it.
Highly motivated already. May need to channel energies.
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.
Loves to meet people, work with friends, and socialize.
Projects requiring a group of people are a good fit.
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.
Needs direction – may have a spouse that volunteers.
Find a small, discrete task that this person can do. Some people need / want strong direction.
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.
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
Be truthful, be
consistent, be prepared.
Try to always
take the high road on any contentious discussion, or better yet avoid them
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.
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!
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.
Hi! My name is Brianna Bueltmann, and I am the new Elks Scholar Fellow for the Elks National Veterans Service Commission. I graduated from Harvard University in 2016 with a degree in Sociology and came to the Elks after two years of post-graduate travel and research. Immediately after college, I had a travel fellowship that allowed me to live in Ecuador, Colombia, Germany, and Italy for one year. More recently, I worked with the Poverty and Inequality Research Lab at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, doing sociology research on housing, landlords, families, and neighborhood change.
I was drawn to this fellowship because I am passionate about ending homelessness. Rural poverty has long been close to my heart, and volunteering in homeless shelters while studying sociology further opened my eyes to urban poverty and housing issues. Everyone deserves a home. Having worked as a case manager and directed a transitional housing program, I saw how many barriers to housing and gaps in service there were for people experiencing homelessness. The Elks have taken an innovative and entrepreneurial approach, stepping in to provide vital resources that don’t exist elsewhere and make a real difference in the lives of veterans and their families.
Most people think that homelessness could never happen to them, but the reality is that more than half of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck and would be unable to handle a financial emergency if it happened to them. There are over 500,000 people experiencing homelessness on any given night in the United States, and it’s estimated that as many as 39,000 of them are veterans. On top of the widespread issue of finding affordable housing, veterans are especially vulnerable to experiencing homelessness because of post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, and difficulty translating military skills into private sector careers.
In the National Veterans Service Scholar Fellow position, I help run the Welcome Home programs working to serve veterans in need. Our Emergency Assistance Fund helps keep veterans at risk of homelessness stably housed by providing a one-time grant for emergency assistance to get caught up on rent, provide security deposits for new apartments, keep gas and electricity turned on, and help veterans sustain meaningful employment.
Our Welcome Home Kit program helps veterans exiting homelessness and moving into permanent housing by connecting them with Elks members in their community to help provide furniture and basic household items like bedding, dishes, pots and pans, toiletries, and small kitchen appliances – the necessities anyone would need to get started in a new home.
As a part of the fellowship, I also get to work outside the office two days a week, volunteering at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center food pantry. We serve over 150 veterans in need every Tuesday by providing an array of robust groceries with many options for them to choose. I will also start volunteering Thursdays at a local Community Resource and Referral Center (CRRC), working closely with homeless veterans and their social workers.
I really appreciate how this fellowship gives me the opportunity to work directly with the veteran population we serve. Direct service helps keeps us grounded in our mission, and working more closely with social workers and veterans can help us learn more about how we can better meet their needs.
I am looking forward to my next two years with the Elks, excited to see the Welcome Home program develop even further and ready to work together to serve our veterans!
by Sancy Childers, Elks National Veterans Service Commission Scholar Fellow 2016-2018
Reflecting on my two-year fellowship at the Elks National Veterans Service Commission, I am filled with gratitude. I am thankful for this incredible opportunity, the support of my coworkers, and the ways in which this work allowed me to grow. I am humbled and proud of the work the ENVSC does on a daily basis and I truly do not think I would be where I am today without this opportunity.
Starting in July, I will be attending the University of California Davis School of Medicine. My experiences in this fellowship have helped shape my outlook on my future responsibilities as a physician.
My fellowship position focused on the Elks Welcome Home initiative aimed at helping end veteran homelessness in partnership with the Department of Veteran Affairs. When I began, the program was newly established enabling me to play a pivotal role in shaping an agenda that will have an impact on the lives of homeless and at-risk veterans for years to come.
This position gave me the opportunity to focus on my interest in healthcare for underserved communities and gain a unique perspective on this complex issue. As a physician I plan on serving vulnerable populations and the chance to work directly with these individuals has helped prepare me for medical school and my future responsibilities working in this field.
Throughout my fellowship position, my time was split between the Elks headquarters and the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center in Chicago. While in the office, I coordinated a nationwide emergency assistance fund to help veterans and their families secure housing, remain housed, and pay essential utility bills. I also helped facilitate grants funding Elks member’s projects benefiting at risk veterans via Welcome Home Kits and Focus Grants.
“This experience was more challenging and worthwhile than anything I’ve done to date.”
When at the VA, I helped at a weekly pop-up food pantry, worked alongside the social workers serving the homeless, and volunteered in the Emergency Room. This experience was more challenging and worthwhile than anything I’ve done to date. I worked directly with this underserved population and I had the ability to really change their lives.
When I began this work, I was unprepared for the heart wrenching stories I would be hearing and the overwhelming feeling of knowing you made a meaningful impact on someone’s life. Early into my fellowship, a father of three young boys called to thank the Elks for helping him with a security deposit and cried while explaining that he had never given his three sons a proper bath.
This experience really stuck with me and put into perspective the work the ENVSC does. I was continuously humbled with the opportunity I had to serve these amazing men and women, and I am so thankful to have been a part of the team that is helping our nations hero’s get their lives back on track.