Elks Lodge Cultivating Community in South Orange

Anyone who has taken a stroll through a lush plot of community garden beds during the peak of summer knows the beauty and allure these magical pockets of land have on the soul. Not only are well-maintained gardens stunning, but they are also important to thriving communities. Improved access to nutritious food, increased physical activity, and improved mental health are just a few of the many benefits of a community garden.

Elks Lodges seeking to build stronger communities with CIP grants can do so by building a community garden. South Orange, N.J., Lodge No. 1154 has been running a community garden for more than a decade. Initially using a Gratitude Grant, the Lodge now uses its Beacon Grant to support the project.

Grants Coordinator Bob Donnelly has been with the project from the start.

“We started out at a small scale,” says Donnelly, reminiscing on the garden’s inaugural year. “The hard part was filling it all up with soil.” A garden that started with only a few beds now has 31 plots and yields a whopping 2,000 pounds of produce annually—all of which is donated to local food banks.

The South Orange Lodge partners with the Rent Party Pantry, a local nonprofit run by fellow Lodge member Chris Dickson, to operate the South Orange Elks Rent Party Community Garden.

“When we started in 2009,” Dickson says. “The plan was to host a monthly live music event to benefit local food pantries.” Soon, though, the monthly events blossomed into so much more. Dickson was inspired to become an Elk and the two organizations were united by the garden.

From gardening seminars to comedy night fundraisers, the South Orange Lodge is constantly buzzing and its effect on the community is clear. In fact, Lodge membership has grown by 30 percent since the garden’s inception!

“We try to utilize the garden as best we can because it is our most visible community project,” says Donnelly.

The garden sits on the front lawn of the 110-year-old Lodge and attracts many admiring passersby. True to #ElksAlwaysCare form, the South Orange Lodge happily accepts volunteers.

Maintaining, harvesting and distributing produce is a lot of work, creating many volunteer opportunities for people who want to make a difference in the community. Director of Garden Operations Karen Rutberg has been working with the Lodge since 2015. Through surveys and lots of informal discussions on what the community would most like to eat, Rutberg develops a plan and plants accordingly.

“We’ve learned over time to grow things that are sturdy enough to be carried home via bicycle or public transportation. We learned to grow things that are easier to divide among people,” says Rutberg.

For Dickson, the volunteers are the best part of what they do.

“We've met so many nice people, young and old,” he says. “People that just want to make a difference.”

While Elks remain the backbone of the garden, when it comes to harvest time, the more help the better. During the summer season, the Lodge normally harvests twice a week.

“The Saturday morning harvests are just beautiful,” Dickson says. “There's an energy that is tangible when our volunteers work together.”

Through CIP grants, the South Orange Lodge has sown the seeds of volunteerism in its community. What started out as a few piles of dirt and some seeds has blossomed into a hunger-fighting, community-strengthening garden for good.

But most importantly, according to Rutberg, “The volunteers are what makes the garden grow.”

Lodge grant applications opened on April 1. For more information on our available grants and their guidelines, check out our Grant Toolkits. If you have any questions about grant projects, the CIP can be reached at 773/755-4730 or LodgeGrants@elks.org.