Once a year, on November 11, the United States pauses to remember its veterans. On the other 364 days, it's up to the Elks.
Since the end of World War II an army of Elks volunteers has been visiting our country's VA medical centers, honoring the Elks pledge that "So long as there are veterans in our hospitals, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks will never forget them." The work of these volunteers, the Elks Veterans Service representatives who are part of an Elks National Veterans Service Commission program, is funded by the Elks National Foundation. The representatives receive monthly stipends through the Foundation that they use to provide the small comforts that make a huge difference to veterans in VA medical centers and other hospitals.
Elks Veterans Service Representative Dick Eirich has been involved with the program for four years at the North Chicago VA Medical Center. Proudly sporting his Elks hat and yellow Elks vest, Eirich visits the medical center at least once a week, bringing snacks and drinks to the veterans. He also provides them with toiletries, socks, and coffee-everyday items to us, but luxuries to hospitalized veterans. And when it comes to creature comforts, nothing is too small. "I recently bought a bucket of bubble gum for one veteran who had remarked in passing that he really liked it," Eirich recalls. "I try and purchase the little things that individual veterans enjoy."
Around Easter, Eirich provides Easter baskets for the veterans. "We're here to cheer them up and bring them something different in their lives," Eirich says. "Without the money provided to me by the Veterans Service Commission, I wouldn't be able to do any of this."
The Elks National Veterans Service Commission has received more than $5.1 million from the Foundation since 1984. For 1999-2000, the Foundation granted $568,450 to the commission, up $39,500 from last year. Of that grant, 73.4 percent will be used by the 400 Elks Veterans Service representatives around the United States to hearten these veterans who have paid so high a price for our freedoms.
Eirich's motivation is the thanks that he receives from the veterans. A cheer from them, or a simple hug, convinces Eirich that the donations that fund his work are put to good use.
At the Hines VA Medical Center near Maywood, Illinois, Elks Veterans Service Representative Jim Rooney is accomplishing many of the same goals. Just ask Voluntary Service Chief Bonnie Gunter. As head of the personnel office for volunteers and the one who manages gifts and donations, she sees the benefits firsthand.
"VA centers nationally could not exist without the support of organizations like the Elks," Gunter remarks. "We can't measure the extras that Elks provide for the veterans through financial contributions and volunteer service."
While the extras may be unmeasurable, they are certainly real. "We help plan bingo games three times a month for the veterans," Rooney explains. "We also distribute care packages, provide clothing, and sponsor parties for the veterans."
Gunter concludes, "Saying thank you can't even begin to communicate to the Elks what they have made possible for our veterans. Please don't stop what you are doing. We count on you."
In addition to providing monthly stipends to the Elks Veterans Service representatives, the Elks National Foundation also provides the Elks National Veterans Service Commission with funding for the Veterans Leather Program, in-hospital performances by Re-Creation USA, and the shipment of playing cards for veterans.