Photo by Jerry Gay
While traditions like Bingo & Burgers continue at the Ballard Elks, the order is looking for new blood and fresh ideas to benefit the Ballard community. CLICK ON IMAGE TO SEE ANOTHER PICTURE

The Elks: Having a good time for the betterment of the community

Drawn by a stunning water view, community and a desire to give back , nearly 100 people joined the Ballard Elks last year - a most welcoming development.

For decades, they've been struggling with recruitment.

"Nationally, Elks have an image problem," said Anthony Gibbs, Exalted Ruler of the Ballard Elks. "And usually that problem is being out of sight."

The Ballard Elks, more formally known as Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks Lodge #827, is part of a network of Elks lodges that collectively make up one of the leading fraternal orders in the U.S.

Founded by a small group of actors and entertainers in 1868, the Elks started as a private social club named "Jolly Corks". They later added a sense of purpose and opened their memberships to allow other professions, people of color, and women.

It has an impressive list of famous members which include men like former presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy as well as actors like Ben Affleck and athletes such as NFL Hall of Fame Quarterback and MLB Player, Ace Parker.

The fraternal order was founded with a mission "to promote and practice the four cardinal virtues of Charity, Justice, Brotherly Love and Fidelity; to promote the welfare and enhance the happiness of its members; to quicken the spirit of American Patriotism and cultivate good fellowship". But it commonly became known for its facilities, secretive rituals, and social events.

In Ballard, few people are aware that in addition to Bingo nights and senior dances, the lodge offers a community and entertainment for anyone 21 and up.

While the Ballard Elks Lodge may not have a bowling lane, gym, golf course, or pool as other lodges do, it does have a spacious venue with stunning Puget Sound views, a beach, and some of the cheapest drinks in town.

"It's great to have a club with cheap drinks and great views but we do so much more than that," said Gibbs.

Gibbs, 35, joined when living in Jackson Hole, Wyo. because the lodge had the only bowling lanes in the city.

"I had no idea what all they did." Gibbs said. "For better or worse, the Federal Government is providing fewer and fewer services. The Elks and other clubs are perfectly located to fill that gap. It's a good thing because we have an ear to the ground."

Nationally, The Elks are second only to the U.S. government in providing scholarships to local high school seniors. The Ballard Elks gives six $1,000 scholarships to Ballard High Schools seniors every year. They are also big supporters of veterans and in addition to donating money to Veteran Affairs, they regularly clean tombstones, and serve free Veterans Day dinners to approximately 150 local vets and family members. State-wide, they support Children's Hospital and pay for in-home therapy for children with special needs.

"Maybe people forgot but it is important locals know what we do," said member and life-long Ballardite Cindy Olsby. "We should be known for our long-standing commitment to the community."

And perhaps they have been getting noticed as so many new members were initiated and many of them were considered "young" by Elks' standards.

"We're seeing a lot more people in their thirties and forties," said Olsby. "People are genuinely interested in volunteering and making our community a better place."

Olsby, herself in her forties, became a member five years ago but had been working at the lodge as a bartender for four years before that.

"It just clicked for me; we give scholarships to Ballard High, which is where I went to school. And we also give to Children's Hospital and my sister works for Children's. It made sense to be here," she said.

It was Olsby who came up with the New Year's Day Pledge or Plunge fundraiser, during which members plunge into the icy cold Puget Sound for pledges.

"We raised $3,000 in its first year (2011) and this year we made $6000. We're going for $12,000 next year," she said.

Olsby said that when her 23-year-old daughter becomes a member, she will be the fourth generation of her family to become an Elk.

"Getting younger people to join is crucial to organizations like this for survival," said Gibbs. "We need fresh blood, fresh ideas and people to think big. If there are people out there with ideas to make Ballard better but have a lack of resources, come join. We'll make it happen."

The requirements to become an Elk have loosened up a bit in recent years, and Gibbs laughed as he stated that the application forms once asked the question, "are you a communist?".

Today, the only requirements are American citizenship and a belief in God.

"My only obligation of our members is to use this lodge for the betterment of the community," said Gibbs. "It's a great place to throw a party as long as charity is in mind and any profit goes to a cause."

Despite the need for new, younger members, Olsby and Gibbs both raved about the enthusiastic troopers - the old guard members of 80 or 90 years-old who still come in to volunteer their time and give back to the community.

"The old guard keeps us cognizant of our past and history," Gibbs said. "Almost every time I come down here I learn something new about Ballard, the city, or fishing in Alaska."

"It's like real-life facebook," added Olsby. "Reunions happen here all the time."

But as the older generation thins out, Gibbs is banking on the younger generation to continue the lodge and its service to the community.

"The biggest thing we offer right now is potential and hope for charity," he said.

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