Finding Local Veterans in Need: Where to Start

“Our Lodge wants to help, but we can’t find any veterans in need.” Sound familiar? Our office fields this question from time to time, particularly in areas without a VA facility nearby. Here’s how to get started.

First, the VA operates thousands of facilities, and not all are hospitals. They run housing facilities for formerly homeless veterans, offsite clinics, benefits offices, and Vets Centers. Many of these facilities, especially Vets Centers, are located away from traditional VA campuses. Contact the staff at these facilities, and ask how the Elks can help.

Additionally, the VA has dozens of outreach programs in each facility, from adaptive sports programs to skills-based classes to financial counseling and more. Keep an open mind, and research where the needs are, even if it means leaving your comfort zone and changing what your Lodge has done in the past.

Then, search online for veterans organizations in your area. There are more than 45,000 veterans nonprofits registered in the United States. There may be some just around the corner that you don’t know about.

You can also search for city, county, regional or state veterans offices and let them know the Elks are there to serve veterans in need. Check for veterans meetings and gatherings on community calendars, and ask if you can stop by to say a few words about the Elks support for veterans.

Many large nonprofits, like the Salvation Army, Volunteers of America and even the YMCA have programs specifically for veterans, military members and their families. Reach out to these groups and see how your Lodge can work together with them.

Don’t forget about more traditional outreach organizations, like Disabled American Veterans, Vietnam Veterans of America, Paralyzed Veterans of America, and AMVETS, to name just a few.

Be aware that younger veterans are less likely to be a part of traditional veterans groups, and may be harder to connect with. Groups like the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, The Mission Continues and Team Rubicon rally younger veterans to meet in their communities for service activities and social gatherings. Check their websites to find the local contact in your area.  You  may also want to reach out to student veterans near you. If there is a community college or university near you, they may have a student veterans group or staff member responsible for veterans outreach.

Finally, work with what you have. Because of privacy laws, many organizations may not be able to share names. They can, however, share needs or ideas. And once your Lodge has built up some trust, they may be more willing to connect you with veterans directly.



More than Support

In the non-profit world, the word support is often used and rarely defined. It’s a catch-all verb, and its casual use sometimes denotes a lack of action. People are content to share things on social media, slap a bumper sticker on their car or proudly declare their support, all without ever actually doing anything to advance that cause or solve that problem. The world of veterans’ service is no exception in this regard.

However, the Elks are part of an important program that counteracts this trend. Through the Veterans Affairs Voluntary Service program, or VAVS, hundreds of Elks are stationed in VA facilities across the nation, providing consistent, tangible service to the veterans who seek care there.

That’s no small feat. In the United States today, there are more than 21 million veterans, more than 9 million of whom receive health care at the VA. In a typical year, more than 6 million of those veterans visit a facility.

Nearly 60 years ago, the VA chose the words of Abraham Lincoln as their motto and mission, taken from a speech he’d given just weeks before his assassination. Lincoln charged the country with the responsibility “to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.”

That responsibility stands today. All kinds of veterans pass through the VA: young and old, male and female, rich and poor. They go seeking traditional healthcare, mental health treatment, physical therapy, assistance finding a home or even to learn an adaptive sport.

Through the VAVS program, Elks are stationed in places like VA Medical Centers, State Veterans Homes and even a few USOs across the country. These Elks host barbecues, organize job fairs, partner on Stand Downs, provide weekly recreation opportunities, offer much-needed trips out of the hospital, and provide friendship.

If you’re passionate about serving veterans, the VA is the perfect place to do so. We are always looking for VAVS Representatives to promise monthly visits, and Deputy Representatives to partner with them.  More volunteers means the opportunity to expand services and reach out to new groups of veterans, helping us to serve groups like female veterans, homeless veterans, and the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans whose numbers are increasing every day.

Your time and talents are needed. Millions of veterans are counting on you.


To learn more about the Elks VAVS program, visit our webpage. To get involved, contact the Veterans office today to learn about VAVS volunteer opportunities near you. You can reach us at 773-755-4736, or


A Model Food Pantry

Every Tuesday an expansive hallway on the second floor of the Jesse Brown Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Chicago gets transformed into a food pantry like you’ve never seen before. One wall is lined with tables overflowing with a variety of fresh fruit, vegetables, grains, canned goods, eggs, and meat. When was the last time you saw a food pantry with three meat options?! It’s common practice for food pantries to provide preassembled packages of food for their recipients. Due to the immense number of volunteers at Jesse Brown however, there is a sufficient crew to run the pantry similar to a grocery store. As they walk down the hallway, the veterans get to choose what they want, minimizing waste of unwanted goods as well as bringing dignity into the process. The food is provided in collaboration by the Food Depository, AmeriCorps, and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Any veteran, whether homeless or housed, can shop at the pantry once a month. The goal of the pantry is to serve 150 veterans a week but this number is often exceeded. This model has successfully been replicated at Edward Hines VA Hospital, also serving the Chicago area, and VA’s across the nation are looking to duplicate this system in the near future.

The expansive hallway at Jesse Brown VA Medical Center converted into the weekly food pantry. Volunteers travel down the right side of the railing, collecting the food the veterans select.

I am an Elks scholar, having received scholarships from the Elks National Foundation in 2012 when I began college at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I’ve been working at the Elks National Veterans Service Commission as a fellow for the past few months on the Welcome Home initiative, aimed at helping end veteran homelessness. Jenna, the other Elks scholar turned fellow, and I have been having a blast at Jesse Brown these past few weeks. Many of the volunteers we work with are veterans themselves, choosing to serve other veterans in need. Others come from the American Red Cross, AmeriCorps, or simply choose to volunteer on their own. There is a wonderful sense of camaraderie and jokes are cracked nonstop. The day flies by as we act as personal shoppers for veterans, snatching their food off the tables and thanking them for their service. This Veterans Day, November 11th, will mark the 3rd anniversary since the food pantry at Jesse Brown VA has been open. In this time, nearly 5,000 unique veterans have been served, along with nearly 13,000 unique household members.

Call Volunteer Services at your local VA to see how you can get involved and give back to veterans in your community! This has been an extremely fun and rewarding experience and I would highly recommend volunteering at your VA!

Mental Health Matters

On July 7, the Department of Veterans Affairs released the results of a large-scale study of veteran suicide rates. The analysis, which examined the records of more than 55 million veterans from 1979 to 2014, is the most comprehensive to date. The results showed that in 2014, an average of 20 veterans a day died from suicide*, making the risk of suicide 21% greater for veterans than the general population.

The statistics themselves are at times surprising and always alarming. For example, 65% of all veterans who died from suicide in 2014 were 50 years of age or older. Specific numbers aside, it’s clear that veterans are more susceptible to suicide than civilians. These results are unacceptable, and should be a concern for all Americans. Even before this report came out, I spoke with several members about the issue and how the Elks can do more to help.

Some Good News

There is news of some progress though. The use of VA services is protective against suicide, and the VA is expanding access to and the amount of those services available. They are increasing access to same-day appointments for veterans with urgent mental health needs. They’ve hired 60 new crisis intervention responders to work the Veterans Crisis Line, and they’re increasing online and over the phone mental health care opportunities to reach veterans in underserved areas. They’re being proactive and reaching out to veterans with the greatest risk.

Some of this is because of a sustained advocacy campaign by the organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America to pass the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention Act.

How Can the Elks Help?

Though the Welcome Home program doesn’t mention it directly, it does play a role in assisting veterans in need of mental health services. Every veteran who receives emergency assistance from the Elks is also working closely with a VA social worker and enrolled in a comprehensive treatment plan that includes access to extensive mental health care. (View these videos to hear the experiences of veterans in this treatment program.)

Many of our VAVS Representatives hold events for veterans receiving treatment for mental health issues, and a few Lodges specifically address this issue by using their Lodge Grants to hold veterans support groups. Our Adopt-a-Veteran program is targeted at reaching out to veterans who lack support. Studies show that increased social ties decrease the risk of suicide.

The ENVSC also works closely with the group Make the Connection help them publicize their many resources, promote the Veterans Crisis Line, and reach out to veterans. Make the Connection staff is always at our conventions to share information, and we spread the word about their events and programs in our newsletters and on social media.

We also publicize the work of other programs that are helping. The relatively new organization Campaign to Change Direction is working to reduce the stigma of mental health, and encourage everyone to focus on the importance of emotional well-being in addition to physical well-being. The organization Give an Hour provides free mental health services to veterans and military members and their families. They are always looking for licensed mental health professionals to volunteer their time.

To ensure that we are doing our part, the ENVSC will increase its promotion of resources like these. You can do your part by sharing that information too, and by continuing to serve veterans in your community, and inviting them into the Elks family.

Together, we can and should do more to help keep our veterans safe once they return home.

*Many media outlets and organizations cite an estimate of 22 a day, which is linked to the results of an older study, which actually produced the range of 18 to 22 veterans a day. The Washington Post has a good in-depth analysis of this 22 a day number and where it comes from.

Meet Sancy, the Elks Scholar Fellow

Let me start by introducing myself. My name is Sancy Childers and I just began working as an Elks Scholar Fellow at the Elks National Veteran Services Commission in Chicago. This past June I graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara with a B.S. in Biological Sciences. Back in 2012 when I began college, I received a Legacy Scholarship as well as a Lodge Scholarship from the San Rafael, Calif., Lodge No. 1108 where my family has been members for years. Thank you for the generous support, the knowledge that this organization believed in me enough to invest in my future gave me the confidence to pursue my goals. Your support was invaluable and I’ve now come full circle and returned to give back to the Elks!

I’ve been working here a few weeks and things in Chicago are in full swing! I was fortunate enough to attend the Elks National Convention in Houston over the 4th of July weekend. I had no idea what to expect from this event and was blown away by all the amazing work the members of the Elks are doing. From serving veterans to volunteering with programs to assist children with disabilities, Elks members are making a visible and meaningful impact in their communities across the country.

In Houston there was a lot of chatter about the Welcome Home program aimed at ending veteran homelessness. This will be my primary focus and I’m so excited to get started! There are 5 components to the program; Welcome Home Kits to help veterans establish their homes once they become housed, Adopt a Homeless Veteran where Elks members act as an advocate and friend to help a veteran transition into their home, Awareness Campaign where we help Elks spread the word about the issue, Elks Housing Navigators where Elks members work with homeless veterans to find a home and become integrated into the community, and finally the Elks Emergency Assistance Program. In this final component veterans can apply for a one-time monetary assistance to prevent homelessness. Requests include helping with utility payments to ensure that housed veterans don’t lose their electricity or gas, helping pay for a security deposit to aid homeless veterans in becoming house, as well as rental assistance to ensure housed veterans don’t fall into homelessness.

I’ve processed hundreds of these Emergency Assistance applications in the past few weeks and wanted to share one of these veteran’s story. A young veteran in the Chicago area was injured and required a common surgical procedure. His job required him to do manual labor and he was quickly terminated because this simple operation prevented him from working for a few weeks. Before he knew it, this father of two daughters who had been housed with a stable job, was on the brink of becoming homeless. By helping this family pay their rent, they have been able to remain housed while the father seeks alternative employment now that he is in good health again. It warms my heart to be able to help families like this and be able to see what a direct and tremendous impact the Elks National Veterans Service Commission is having!

If you wish to get involved you can read more about the Welcome Home program on our website or view the presentation given at the Elks National Convention last week by clicking on the presentation titled “Ending Veteran Homelessness: How the Elks can Help”.  Check back in for more stories like this and updates on what’s going on here in Chicago!


The Power of Community

I recently read an article about a Vietnam veteran, who passed away in Colorado around Christmas last year. Tom Sweetnam was born in Canada, and joined the American Army to fight in the Vietnam War.* He became a Green Beret who earned a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts. Once he returned home, he had a hard time adjusting and moved around often enough that he lost touch with most of his family and friends.

He died alone, in his trailer nestled in the Rocky Mountains, his body left alone for 10 days before it was found. The article pieces together different parts of his life, with interviews of his siblings, Vietnam buddies, and old friends. There’s a short video about his life, and a wealth of old photos.

His story mirrors that of many American veterans. Though he suffered from nightmares, depression, anxiety and more, he didn’t seek treatment until 1995. A doctor at the VA in Palo Alto diagnosed him with PTSD, named it responsible for his isolation, and declared him “totally disabled.” His diagnosis is certainly not uncommon. The VA estimates that about 15% of Vietnam Veterans have dealt with PTSD at some point in their lives, and as many as 20% of Operations Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Enduring Freedom (OEF) veterans may suffer from it.** Though this issue is much discussed now, it wasn’t in the past, and many like Sweetnam went undiagnosed for decades.

Not long after the diagnosis he left California and eventually made his way to Colorado, perhaps because of its similarity to British Columbia where he grew up. That’s where his body was found in 2015.

When interviewed for this article, his friend and Vietnam buddy David Hazelton reflected on the situation, saying that although Sweetnam survived the Vietnam war, it may still have been responsible for his death.

The story may seem overwhelming, and something an average citizen can’t do anything about. But one part of the article struck me. “Studies since the war have shown that social supports — family, a social network to lean on — are among the greatest protective factors against the development of PTSD.” As a community-focused organization, Elks can certainly help by being a social network for veterans.

Last year at the Elks National Convention, I met an Elk who was telling me about her participation in the Adopt-a-Veteran program. She’d heard about it at the Lodge and expressed interest. She was matched with a veteran in a local facility who staff had identified as needing visitors. Though he wasn’t enthusiastic about the first visit, she persisted and a friendship blossomed. She learned that before she’d shown up, the veteran hadn’t had a visitor in years. Not months: years. Now she makes sure to visit and contact him often, and he looks forward to seeing her.

Reaching out to a veteran once a month may be a small thing for you to do, but it could be the anchor they’re looking for. A phone call, a card, or an invite to the Lodge could be all someone needs to feel connected to the community. Visit our Adopt-a-Veteran webpage to learn more about the program, and how you can get involved.




Putting the Elks’ Pledge Into Action

In the days and weeks following the Wounded Warrior media coverage, I read many articles criticizing and defending the group. Many people were eager to offer alternative veterans groups for people to support. They suggested the American Legion, the DAV, the VFW, and the Marine Corps League. No one mentioned the Elks. That’s something we need to change.

by Mary Morgan, ENVSC Director

Many of you may have been following the news coverage of the Wounded Warrior Project. The organization recently came under scrutiny because of its spending. Reports came out about excessive spending on employee retreats, high CEO pay and overhead costs of 40 percent.

Founded in 2003, the Wounded Warrior Project’s mission is to assist wounded veterans with recovery and reintegration into society. As the largest and fastest-growing veterans’ charity in the country, the Wounded Warrior Project has provided vital assistance to many injured veterans over the past 13 years. And running an effective nonprofit does require overhead spending. The situation is not as simple as many have made it out to be, and Elks Lodges who’ve had success partnering with local Wounded Warrior groups shouldn’t feel the need to stop working together to serve veterans because of this.

It does make for an interesting comparison though. By contrast, the Elks have been serving veterans for more than a hundred years. In 2015-16, the Elks National Foundation, which funds veterans grant projects and the Elks National Veterans Service Commission, spent only 7.4 percent on supporting services. This is well below the Better Business Bureau’s standard for charity accountability, which is 35 percent or less on supporting services. (Learn more about this in the ENF’s Annual Report.)

In the days and weeks following the Wounded Warrior media coverage, I read many articles criticizing and defending the group. Many people were eager to offer alternative veterans groups for people to support. They suggested the American Legion, the DAV, the VFW, and the Marine Corps League. No one mentioned the Elks. That’s something we need to change.

The Elks National Veterans Service Commission was officially founded in 1946, and Elks were serving veterans long before that. Today, Elks use Lodge grants to run fitness and recovery groups for veterans, support military families in need and hold recreational therapy programs for wounded veterans. More than 600 Elks serve in VA facilities and veterans hospitals across the country as Veterans Affairs Voluntary Service Representatives. The Veterans Leather Program provides free wheelchair gloves and leather therapy kits for thousands of veterans each year. And the Welcome Home initiative is reaching out to some of our most vulnerable veterans: those who are homeless.

Recently, we posted a photo to social media of a Lodge providing free haircuts to veterans in need. It was one of many updates we receive each week of Elks engaged in service. People liked and shared the photo, and hopefully a few more learned about what the Elks do for veterans. One person commented underneath the photo, “These guys don’t just talk.” It struck me as the perfect way to sum up the photo, and much of the Elk’s history serving veterans. Elks don’t just talk. They act. Let’s keep acting, and people will notice.