The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks is one of the oldest and largest private organizations in the United States.
The first formal meeting was held on February 16, 1868, in New York City. Fifteen people turned out, most of them young, undiscovered but budding actors who had gathered for companionship and to help their out-of-work peers.
The idea caught on and spread to other groups and other cities. As it grew, the new organization broadened its membership base to include all occupations.
Today there are nearly 1.3 million members of the Elks in 2,200 local "Lodges" found throughout all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and several overseas locations. Over the years, these Lodges have evolved into the primary building blocks of the Elks organization. They provide recreational facilities for the entire family, and the Lodges are also the focal point for the many community service and charitable programs that have become an Elks tradition.
Early in its history, the Elks supported groups such as the Salvation Army and the Red Cross. In 1871, they staged a benefit for the victims of the great Chicago fire. Money was raised for victims of the Seattle fire and the Johnstown flood in 1889. The Elks were one of the first on the scene to supply money and rescue assistance during the San Francisco earthquakes of 1906 and 1989, and more recently, the Oklahoma City bombing and the Red River flood victims. As always, disaster relief continues to play an important part in Elks activities.
Patriotism has been a hallmark of the Elks. The Elks first observed June 14 as Flag Day in 1907, and in 1911, the Order became the first fraternal organization in the nation to mandate observance of June 14 as Flag Day. In 1947, President Harry S. Truman, a fellow Elk, signed into order a declaration naming Flag Day as an official national observance.
The Elks National Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the organization, was created in July 1928 as an income-producing fund to help support national Elks projects and supplement programs at the state and local Lodge levels. Annually, the Foundation awards more than $2 million in scholarships to 500 high school students across the nation, and emergency educational grants are also provided to children of members who have died or been disabled. In addition, many state associations and local Lodges offer scholarships.
Foundation support of state association projects is based on a "revenue sharing" concept Funds are provided to each state in proportion to the level of contributions made by individuals in the state.
Each state Elks association has its own major project. These include in-home treatment for people with disabilities, summer camps for disadvantaged children, and cancer and organ transplantation research. Annually, the state associations spend a total of more than $26 million on their charitable projects.
Each year, Lodge members and their families give more than 5.9 million volunteer-hours to charitable, educational and patriotic causes in their communities. The Elks annually contribute more than $133 million to these programs.
Youth programs are a primary focus of the Elks. Lodges sponsor more than 1,000 Scout troops and 3,000 Little League teams, as well as Boys and Girls Clubs. The Elks promote an Eagle Scout recognition program and provide two grants to each of the four Scouting regions. A grant of $100,000 was given to the Boy Scouts in 1993. The Elks also sponsor and participate in community youth programs such as baseball, football, basketball and soccer leagues.
In addition to raising funds for youth programs, the Lodges also sponsor such activities as holiday parties and clown visits to bedridden children in hospitals. They take children on picnics, camping trips, fishing outings and excursion boating.
One of the most important youth programs in recent years has been the annual national free throw shooting contest for boys and girls from ages 8 to 13. More than three million youngsters from all 50 states participate yearly in the "Hoop Shoot," from local contest to the national finals, where six champions are named. Past champions include charter Dream Teamer Chris Mullin of the Golden State Warriors and North Carolina State star Jennifer Howard.
The free throw program, begun in 1972 on a national basis, provides spirited competition and the chance for youngsters to develop new friendships. Winners and their families also travel to state, regional and national competition courtesy of the Elks. The names of the national winners are inscribed in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. The Elks National "Hoop Shoot" contest is the largest coeducational sports event in the country.
The Elks Drug Awareness Program was introduced into the Order at the Grand Lodge Convention in July 1983, where the Elks announced a nationwide campaign to help combat drug abuse among young people. The goal of the program is prevention -- to stop drug abuse before it starts by educating our youth about the adverse effects of marijuana, cocaine and alcohol, the "gateway" drugs most prevalent among our young people.
The program is designed to reach youths directly through the adults who influence them -- their parents and teachers. The Elks recognize they are not generally qualified to speak as experts about drug abuse, but as concerned citizens, they seek to promote opportunities for experts to educate the targeted audience.
The local Lodges spend thousands of dollars of their own money on cartoons, contests, book covers for schoolbooks, films, VCR cassettes and other devices to teach students the perils of drugs.
The Elks made a promise during World War I that disabled veterans of our country would never be forgotten. In World War I, the Order of Elks supplied and equipped the first two field hospitals in France. For returning wounded, the Elks constructed a hospital in Boston, then donated it to the War Department.
Elks Lodges throughout the country work with the veterans and veterans hospitals in their areas. Whether it be conducting bingo games, patio picnics, fishing trips and many other projects or just visiting with and writing letters for the veterans -- the Elks are always there.
For more than 129 years, the Elks have been there, making a difference in their communities, their states and their country.