A Mark on My Heart: Elks Scholars in Philadelphia
What happens when strangers come together for multiple days of service, sightseeing and socializing?

For some, the answers may vary. On Elks Scholar Service Trips, the answer is always the same.

From March 7 to 11, eight Elks scholars traveled to Philadelphia for the Spring Elks Scholar Service Trip. The scholars had diverse backgrounds, with some coming from towns of less than a few thousand people and others coming from some of the biggest cities in the country. Though the scholars had very different upbringings, they were able to see the beauty in their differences—while finding plenty of similarities.

"I was so worried at first that I'd feel such imposter syndrome getting to know everyone, but I immediately knew that these were genuine people I had so much in common with,” says Elaine Gombos, a 2023 Most Valuable Student scholar sponsored by Allegheny, Pa., Lodge No. 339. Food insecurity was the focus of the scholars’ service in Philadelphia. A multi-faceted issue, food insecurity can be experienced in many ways, including having a limited variety of foods, a lack of culturally relevant food, or increased anxiety about the price of food.

"The highlight of this trip was seeing the ways the organizations we worked with addressed food insecurity,” says Taylor Thompson, a 2022 Legacy Awards scholar and member of the Elks Scholar Advisory Board, sponsored by Nevada, Mo., Lodge No. 564. “I think it goes to show that this issue requires more than a one-size-fits-all solution, and it was so inspiring to meet and work with individuals who are stepping up in their communities."

The scholars began their service with Share Food, a food distribution program that has already reached more than 22 million people this year. They packed more than 400 boxes full of soup cans, cereal boxes, and other shelf-stable staples in assembly-line fashion. The boxes were then distributed to local seniors via a partnership with DoorDash.

After lunch at Reading Terminal Market, the scholars spent the night growing closer as they played community-building games, reflected on their service, and even cooked a meal together.

This communal cooking experience prepared the scholars for their service on day three, when they made dumplings by hand with Asian Food Collective, an organization dedicated to providing culturally relevant meals to those in south Philadelphia. After they made the dumplings, the scholars brought them to a nearby community fridge, where they were available to anyone who needed them. The experience was powerful for the scholars, not only because they were able to get a closer look at what it takes to fight food insecurity, but because they were able to share about the role food plays in their cultural identities.

“Making culturally relevant food with other people was so special to me,” says Gombos. “My favorite part was sharing it with others. Fellow service trippers Cameryn Goochey and Taylor Thompson trying dumplings for the first time was so special.”

The scholars then headed to their first Lodge of the trip, Deptford, N.J., Lodge No. 2708. As part of their merged Beacon and Spotlight Grants, the Deptford Lodge provides much needed supplies, like clothing and hygiene products, to the local high school for a comfort closet.

Members of the Deptford Lodge, including Exalted Ruler Jessica Haib, Grants Coordinator Heather Pagano, and Scholarship Chairperson Felicia Repolio, took the scholars shopping to buy supplies for the comfort closet. This was another important experience for the scholars, as they were introduced to the generosity and thoughtfulness of Elks. Scholars even gave their input as to what supplies would be valued by high schoolers.

“I found the comfort closet shopping to be the most meaningful experience of the trip, because it was nice to buy things that I would have appreciated having available to me in high school,” says Merlin D’souza, a 2021 Most Valuable Student scholar sponsored by Casa Grande Valley, Ariz., Lodge No. 1957.

The trip to the Deptford Lodge was not strictly for business—the scholars also met and played games with many of the members. Though the scholars were supposed to leave after a couple hours, they stuck around at the Lodge so they could talk to everyone in their #ElksFamily.

“Our time at the Deptford Lodge was a major highlight of the trip,” says Libby Willkomm, Program Relations Associate. “From career conversations to bonding over shared interests, the intentional planning made the scholars feel welcomed and loved by their Elks family.”

After serving in a food distribution warehouse on the first day, then making food and bringing it to a community fridge on the second day, the scholars’ service came full circle when they used their last day to hand out food to those in need. They traveled to Bridgeport, Pa., Lodge No. 714 to take part in their Beacon Grant project, a community food distribution program. The scholars braved the cold and wet weather to give food directly to community members.

“The food distribution at the Bridgeport Lodge was so impactful,” says Thompson. “Getting to experience that direct service and learn a part of their story was so eye-opening. It really demonstrated that food insecurity does not come in one shape or size.

The scholars quickly warmed up with a hot lunch at the Lodge. Grants Coordinator Patrice DeStefano was an excellent host and made the Bridgeport Lodge feel like home for these scholars from across the nation.

No trip to Philadelphia is complete without some United Sates history, and the service trip was no exception. The scholars went on a historical walking tour of the city before heading back to their hostel for another communal dinner.

At the final reflection, they complimented one another on the unique traits each scholar brought to the table and celebrated their accomplishments. When it was time for goodbyes, there was hardly a dry eye left in the room.

“As I reflect on my incredible journey to Philadelphia, I am filled with gratitude for the unforgettable experiences and meaningful connections made along the way,” says Sara McGehee, a 2023 Most Valuable Student scholar sponsored by Fairfield, Ill., Lodge No. 1631. “I am inspired by the amazing people I met, both fellow scholars and members of the communities we served, whose passion and dedication left an incredible mark on my heart. I can't wait for the next opportunity to embark on another journey of service and discovery, knowing that each experience brings new opportunities for growth and connection. I am so happy to be a part of the #ElksFamily.”

So what happens when strangers are brought together? On Elks Scholar Service Trips, the answer is clear: meaningful service, life-long friendships and unforgettable memories.

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