Center Stage in St. Louis

The schedule is set, the lines have been memorized, rehearsals are over, and the Elks National Foundation takes the stage for its run at the Elks National Convention in St. Louis. This year, the spotlight was on service, and the characters were made up of the Elks scholars, veterans, Elks, and community members who played a part in creating the stories that came out of each of the ENF’s programs this past year. Many of these characters, including seven of the eight Elks scholars and alumni who make up the Scholar Advisory Board, joined us to put on the show of a lifetime.

Once the booth is set up, the show begins.

Throughout the year, thousands of Elks across the nation spend countless hours working to provide housing for veterans experiencing homelessness, backpacks full of supplies for children, warm winter coats for low-income families, holiday dinners for veterans and families, and more. Convention is where the ENF can meet these dedicated Elks and thank them for their work.

At the ENF booth, we offered three grants-oriented ribbons: “You’re a CIPerstar!” for using three or more grants, “You Are a Beacon of Hope” for Lodges that used the Beacon Grant, and “You Will be a Beacon of Hope” for Lodges who didn’t use it this year, but are encouraged to use the grant next year. It’s hard to believe, but just 55 percent of Lodges use their Beacon Grant, which many volunteers were shocked to learn because “it’s free money to help their community.” Our hope was that these ribbons will raise awareness about the resources Lodges have available to them through the Foundation.

As a token of our appreciation for the Foundation’s supporters who donate throughout the year, we host an annual Major Donor Event. This year, Busch Stadium served as the backdrop to a grand slam evening. Before behind-the-scenes tours of the stadium began, the ENF had several special presentations to make.

The first was a $10,000 donation in honor of then-Grand Exalted Ruler Mike and Barb Luhr to the BackStoppers, an organization that provides financial assistance to the spouses and dependent children of police officers, firefighters, paramedics and EMTs who lose their lives or suffer a catastrophic injury in the line of duty. The BackStoppers currently provide $1.5 million in assistance to families in the St. Louis area, helping support 80 families and 65 dependent children.

Chief Dennis Jenkerson of the St. Louis Fire Department, who is a BackStopper board member and a member of St. Louis Lodge No. 9, accepted the check on behalf of the organization.

“I can’t tell you how great this donation is,” Jankerson says. “From my heart and every fallen officer’s spouse, thank you very much.”

Representing the Cardinals for the evening was Al Hrabosky, a.k.a. the “Mad Hungarian,” who pitched for the Cardinals, Kansas City Royals and Atlanta Braves over a 13-year career in the Major Leagues. Hrabosky greeted guests, posed for photos, and also thanked the ENF for the donation to the BackStoppers, a program he’s involved with as well.

“You couldn’t have picked a better organization than the BackStoppers,” he continued, “You couldn’t have a better representation of St. Louis than them.”

The ENF Donor Event was the opening act, and the curtains closed when the one-man band took his third and final request of “Free Bird.” Read more about the Donor Event and how you can get invited next year here.

On Sunday, there was another special treat for Convention attendees—a live show of the Midday with the ENF podcast. There was lots of popcorn, prizes and special guests, including Rick Gathen, Mary Morgan, the top two Most Valuable Students, and Vern Larson and Larry Torres, regional directors of the Hoop Shoot. As always, lots of jokes and insider information was shared, including what the future might hold for certain CIP grants. You can listen to the show here.

With the Opening Ceremony came the ENF’s grand finale (until we were back in the booth the next day). Opening Ceremony was led by Past National President Ronald Hicks. His presentation began with a celebration of the Elks’ first membership gain in nearly four decades. The continued with the Presentation of Flags followed by the Foundation’s presentation.

We premiered several new films, starting with “Shine a Spotlight on Service,” highlighting Hyannis, Mass., Lodge No. 1549’s Spotlight Grant project, which addresses family literacy through a Community Baby Shower. Watch this short film to see how this project has changed their community.

Tying into the newest addition to the Community Investments Program, the Spotlight Grant, we held a Spotlight Grant Drive throughout the convention. More than 900 eager Elks donated thousands of new pairs of socks, which were picked up by five local Lodges, and hundreds of children’s books. Representatives from Ready Readers, a St. Louis organization that reads to preschoolers and offers free books to kids, couldn’t believe they were carting away 19 boxes full of books and thanked the Elks for their generosity.

Donations to the drive were an entry to a raffle for Lodges to double their Spotlight Grant to $4,000. Watch Midday Minute to see which five Lodges took home the top prize. Next up was Nicole, an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran and mother to two young sons, who the ENF supported through the Elks’ Emergency Assistance Fund. Nicole was featured in our “Be the Spark” series, and the accompanying film, “Be the Spark: Positioned to Make a Difference,” to show the gravity of the Emergency Assistance Fund on veterans experiencing or on the verge of homelessness, like Nicole.

Kevin Morton, a homeless veterans coordinator at the Washington, D.C. V.A. Medical Center, was a part of Nicole’s journey in finding stable housing. He’s been eager to build his relationship with local Lodges and the Elks National Veterans Service Commission to continue helping as many veterans as possible.

“The funds are distributed within five to 10 days, if that long,” Morton shares of the Emergency Assistance Fund. He goes on to call the partnership with the Elks “nothing short of a miracle.”

Another miracle were this year’s Getty Powell winners’ stories. Anthony Thompson, sponsored by Dayton, Ohio, Lodge No. 58, broke a Hoop Shoot record by being the first National Finalist to win the Getty Powell Award in back-to-back years. His counterpart, Jamisyn Stinson, sponsored by New Lexington, Ohio, Lodge No. 509, had a completely different story. She decided to try the Hoop Shoot for the first time in her last year of eligibility and not only did she win the 12- to 13-year-old girls’ division, but she took home the Getty Powell Award. Both the winners and their families attended the Opening Ceremony and spent time at the Hoop Shoot booth throughout the weekend.

Finally, the top Most Valuable Student scholarship winners bravely shared their personal stories about growing up in immigrant families and single-parent homes to an audience of thousands. Tabitha Escalante, sponsored by Maumee-Bowling Green, Ohio, Lodge No. 1850, and Victor Ramirez, sponsored by South Miami/Coral Gables, Fla., Lodge No. 1676, shared how their passions—for education, for service, for change—have driven them to excel. Their speeches were proof enough of why they were each awarded $50,000 scholarships.

“Thank you Lodge No. 1850 for taking a chance on me and sponsoring my application, thank you to my loving family who has supported me along the journey to this moment, and thank you to the Elks for giving me a family and a home in every corner of the US,” Tabitha shared. “I assure you that this will not be a wasted investment.”

Elks scholars like Tabitha, Victor, and Sean; kids like Anthony and Jamisyn; and veterans like Nicole each played a part in showing the importance of the Foundation’s programs.

To continue funding and, hopefully, expanding these programs, then-Chair Lou Sulsberger of the ENF Board of Trustees encouraged attendees to be like him and join the ENF’s monthly giving program, the Fidelity Club. If you heard the ringing of the bells, that was us. The bell tolled for anyone who signed up for the Fidelity Club, and it rang more than 60 times for new members! Currently, just 2.2 percent of our donors are in the Fidelity Club, but we want more people to be like Lou by becoming members, too. Learn more about the Fidelity Club here.

As the stage was struck and the props were put away until next year’s run in Baltimore, the blur of the week became clear. There were the memories of the thousands of Elks who stopped by the booth with big smiles and donations. There were conversations that were relayed between Elks scholars and Elks who related even though they live on different sides of the country. These characters and their stories are why the Foundation does what it does each day of the year and will continue to do so as long as it’s got an audience.

To see the photos that captured all the fun, visit our Flickr!You can download the pictures, too, so don't forget to tag us if you share them on social media.

A 501(c)(3) public charity, the Elks National Foundation helps Elks build stronger communities through programs that support youth, serve veterans and meet needs in areas where Elks live and work.

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