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Not long after he decided to follow in his great-grandfather’s and grandfather’s footsteps and join the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, Jason Reichenberg attended one of the organization’s statewide and national events and realized there was a big problem.
It was the annual Hoop Shoot contest, where participants between 8 and 13 years old compete in free-throw shooting. The competition is supposed to teach youngsters grit and other characteristics that will help them be successful in life.
Thousands of kids around the nation compete each year and the winners are recognized at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
“I remember at the award ceremony this guy was talking about a drug awareness program or something and he was like, ‘We do all this good work and we’re the best-kept secret in town,’” Reichenberg said. “And I’m sitting there going, ‘Why? That’s not a good thing.’ Our state had been losing members for at least five years prior to that. So it was changing that mindset. You don’t just do things and not talk about it.”
That experience helped set in motion a plan from Reichenberg and Gordon Daniels, two members of the San Antonio Elks Lodge 216, which sits a stone’s throw away from the Shops at La Cantera mall on the city’s Northwest Side. They already were aware that membership in the Elks and other fraternal and service clubs around the nation has been shrinking, but it was a realization that the organization didn’t really have a plan to combat it.
The two men eventually met with state leaders in the organization and proposed that lodges start marketing their events and good works and begin using social media to tell their stories and let younger people know who they are. At that point, fewer than one-third of the 55 lodges in Texas even had a Facebook page. Now, nearly all of them do.
Daniels and Reichenberg said they believe their efforts, in conjunction with national and state leaders, have led to the Elks increasing statewide membership in the 2018-19 year for the first time in at least a decade. They said 280 new members joined different lodges around the state last year.
While statewide memberships grew for the 2018-19 year, membership in the San Antonio lodge dropped, Daniels said. He attributed the decline to a handful of older members leaving the lodge.
“We were the best-kept secret for the longest time and now we’re letting people know what we do,” Daniels said. “We’re getting better at getting that information out there.”
Telling the organization’s story is only part of the solution. Attracting younger members to continue that story into the future might be a bigger issue. The organization once had more than 1.6 million members, most of whom were men, in the mid-20th century. It is down to approximately 770,000 in 2019, according to The Elks Magazine.
Reichenberg said the average age of members in San Antonio is approximately 60, but the lodge here is one of the most diverse in the state, with men and women serving in leadership positions, including Diann Oviedo, who is the lodge’s “exalted ruler.”
Based on research they have done nationwide, Daniels and Reichenberg said, declines in membership really started to worsen dramatically in the late 1990s and early 2000s. They attribute some of those losses to the rise of the internet and people no longer having to leave their homes to interact with others and find out what’s going on in their communities.
The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks was founded Feb. 16, 1868, in New York City. A member of a small group of actors and entertainers who gathered on Sundays
. had died suddenly, leaving a widow and children destitute before Christmas. The group formed the Elks after deciding it wanted to help the family and others.
The Elks funded two of the first field hospitals that went to France to treat the wounded during World War I. It also funded a hospital back in the U.S. for returning soldiers, essentially laying the groundwork for the establishment of the Veterans Administration in 1930. Through the years, the organization swelled to eventually include more than 1.6 million members in lodges in all 50 states.
In addition to their enduring charitable work surrounding veterans, the Elks also have focused philanthropy toward helping the homeless, children’s charities and providing college scholarships each year. The Elks donate $90 million in cash and $585 million in goods and services to individuals in need and organizations each year.
Daniels said the Elks in San Antonio recently partnered with VetStrong, a San Antonio-based nonprofit dedicated to providing furniture to once-homeless veterans who don’t have the resources to purchase basic items when they find places to live. The Elks are helping the organization receive used furniture from student housing at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Daniels said the San Antonio lodge also helps 400-500 children each year through various events. Many of those children are living in poverty or battling diseases.
Three years ago a local girl received a $40,000 college scholarship from the national organization, Daniels said. Another San Antonio girl received a $5,000 college scholarship and used it to eventually attend Harvard University. Daniels said she is currently working on her doctorate.
In 2017 when Hurricane Harvey hit Texas gulf communities, Elks
lodges in the Houston area became evacuation centers. The Elks mobilized around the state and served more than 40,000 meals to people displaced by the storm.
“That was a proud moment for us,” Daniels said.
While the Elks are proud of the work they do in their communities, some lodges around the nation are fighting to stay alive and continue their work in the years to come.
Daniels and Reichenberg want younger generations to stop thinking of the organization as a club their grandfathers joined to play cards and have a drink. Instead of the lodge being the “best-kept secret in town,” they’re working to attract new members to a place they say is welcoming to families, where younger people can make a difference in their communities while having fun.