Veterans News

An Exhausting and Productive Year

The past year and a half have been tumultuous, to say the least. Longstanding projects were shaken up, canceled, or reworked entirely. Lodges scrambled to navigate ever-changing guidelines, trying to serve veterans while ensuring everyone’s safety.

One woman who handled the roller coaster of last year with grace and determination is Emma Pletz of Milwaukie-Portland, Ore., Lodge No. 142. From serving National Guard families to helping veterans shelters open for business, Emma Pletz found a way to keep serving.

That’s why she is the 2021 National Veterans Service Volunteer of the Year!

Pletz wears many hats. As the State Secretary for the Oregon Elks Association, she makes sure the Voluntary Service Representatives receive the funds they need every month to serve veterans in facilities across the state.

As Grants Coordinator for her Lodge, she secures the Freedom Grant every year, using the funds to serve local National Guard families. The Lodge goes above and beyond with this project, working closely with battalion leadership to identify families in need and tailor the food boxes to meet the needs of those families.

They partner with local businesses to include fresh bread, produce, and toys for children. They host a food drive at the Lodge to supplement the boxes. This year, the food baskets were as essential as ever, with many Guard members coming back from deployment, unsure if their usual jobs were still there.

“Many had no idea how they were going to have a Christmas and then they saw what they were receiving and were awestruck that all of that food was for them,” Pletz recounts. “There were tears. It was hard at times to make sure that they understood they could take as many toys as they needed to make sure their kids had a nice Christmas.”

Thanks to the Lodge’s advocacy, the amount of donated supplies, and thrifty spending, they even had funds left over, which they shifted to buy fresh produce for the veterans food bank. Not a penny was wasted!

Pletz doesn’t stop at one issue though. She and her Lodge are active in the Welcome Home Kit program and have provided 57 kits of needed home supplies for newly housed veterans since February of 2020. It was through this program that the Lodge learned about a new veterans housing unit opening in Portland that needed community support.

The Lodge wasted no time in connecting with the staff for the new Robert J. Breitung Veterans Building, who were thrilled to receive the call. “The director declared the Elks ‘angels from heaven’ and said she had no idea how she was going to furnish all the apartments.”

Using Spotlight Grant funds, state funds, the Welcome Home Kit program, and a truckload of donated supplies, the Lodge was able to completely furnish all 28 units at the newly opening housing facility.

When the pandemic delayed construction, Pletz’s home became the storage space. “There were boxes all over my house! My living room and hallway became a warehouse, with just a path to get through for 4 months,” she jokes. When construction was completed and the shelter opened, each veteran received a full kit of home supplies and a new bed.

The Lodge can rest assured that their efforts were certainly appreciated. “The veterans were SO EXCITED. We could hardly get the items stacked in the commons room before they wanted to start snooping. A few helped us sort and deliver to each room of the facility. We brought flags, balloons, and cupcakes to make it a celebration. The veterans enjoyed not only the new additions to their apartments but visiting with the Elk members. They couldn't wait to take their items inside their rooms and start enjoying them.”

When we called Pletz to share the news, she was thrilled and shared part of her motivation for serving veterans. “My dad was a WWII veteran, and I’m from the Vietnam era. It’s been very gratifying to help veterans.”

When we asked her how she pulled it off, she shared, “Honestly, I’m exhausted.”

Well, we know why.

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