MILFORD — Bonnie Lee Howell was in Tampa, Florida, recently when she was surprised to hear someone calling her name.
She was attending this year’s Elks Grand Lodge Session, when she was called as the candidate for deputy grand exalted ruler of the North East District.
“It was a total surprise,” she said, adding that the title is “Elk-speak” for district deputy to the national president of the organization. In practice, it means she will be monitoring the activities of Elks Lodges in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Delaware and reporting to the national president.
“I will be visiting the lodges to see that they are doing what they should be doing,” she said.
Doing is part of the Elks tradition. Since their charter in 1868, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks has quietly served local communities as one of the premier patriotic and charitable organizations in the United States, donating more than $71 million in cash and $310 million in goods and services to the needy, students, people with special needs, active-duty armed forces and veterans.
Ms. Howell has been taking part in these activities more than 40 years. Before her initiation into Milford Lodge No. 2401 in 2008, she spent 30 years supporting many Elk activities behind the scenes. During that period, she was president of the Ladies of Elks four times, as well as its treasurer.
She believes she was chosen for her new position because of her role in organizing charity reports, which are very important for nonprofit organizations. “Getting volunteer organizations to report is the hardest,” she said.
In spite of restrictions imposed by the pandemic last year, the North East District had more than 16,000 Elks working in their own communities and were able to help almost 22,000 people. Donations for these efforts were more than $189,000.
But they didn’t boast.
“Elks don’t blow their own horn; they just do the work,” Ms. Howell said.
As an example of this, she cites the Dover lodge having received several $10,000 grants from the Elks National Foundation for its work with Code Purple, which collects and distributes warm clothing for the homeless.
In Ms. Howell’s own community of Milford, Elks volunteers work with children to prepare them for the Special Olympics, as well as recruit teachers and set up balance beams, bikes and T-ball equipment purchased with grants.
Similarly, each lodge has a project to help in its own community, with funding provided by grants from the national foundation, as well as through local fundraisers and events. Each state also has its own initiative.
As Ms. Howell sees it, “We’re brothers and sisters in the act of charity. We fellowship with an organization of the same kind of people.”
Officially known as the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, the organization originated in 1867 in New York City.
In those days, blue laws prohibited the Sunday sale of alcoholic beverages, but a group of 16 actors and entertainers were determined to socialize and have a few drinks on their day off.
Led by Charles L.A. Vivian, they formed a private social club and called it the Jolly Corks.
When one of the members died a few months later, leaving a destitute widow and children, the other Jolly Corks decided to support them. As they realized that benevolence was more rewarding than their own fellowship and would give them an enduring mission, they soon began to find their purpose in serving their community’s needs.
Hence, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks was chartered in 1868. Since then, the Elks has grown to include nearly 1.2 million men and women in almost 2,200 communities nationwide, carrying on some of the original traditions and ceremonies.