by Jenna Johnson
Elks Scholar Fellow, Scholarships
The Winter Elks Scholar Service Trip was a success, and it was a privilege to start off the new year serving with my Elks family. While in Dallas, I was reminded of how fortunate I am to spend a week learning from Elks scholars from around the U.S. My job is a joy and I know I will walk away from every trip challenged and encouraged in new ways. I was also reminded of what a unique connection we share as Elks scholars. Despite our differences, we share similarity in having received a scholarship from the Elks National Foundation that provides an abundance of opportunities for further connection. And, I got to witness 19 people seize an opportunity by attending an Elks Scholar Service Trip and go from sharing a scholarship to sharing life together through service.
Over the course of our week, I watched the scholars invest in one another while they invested in the people they were serving. Whether sorting vegetables at the food pantry, pricing clothes at the thrift store or serving a meal to neighbors in need, they engaged one another through conversation and collaboration. Every night we gathered for group activities and processed through our day of service. We also discussed aspects of our identity that influence the way we relate to one another, such as privilege and how we form perceptions. During these talks, the scholars were honest with one another in what they shared, they respected each other with dignity and they listened to learn. It became even more apparent to me that service acts as an equalizer and creates space to be more genuine and vulnerable.
One reason I found the service to be especially impactful, was that CitySquare took the time to educate us about issues and stigmas associated with homelessness so that we could become informed advocates. Staff members encouraged us to redefine the language we use when addressing homelessness. For example, they asked us to refer to anyone we were serving as a “neighbor”. They reminded us that the men and women we served were just like us, and deserved to be treated the same way we would want to be treated. Something else they said that stuck with me was, “We’re all rich and poor, just in different ways.” I found that to be incredibly true of the men and women we served. Their needs needed to be addressed, but their richness deserved to be recognized too.
Similarly, as I watched our group grow over the week, we came to discover that our own stories reflected gain and loss, and that we were not so different from the individuals we were serving. It became more evident that the biggest thing separating us from our neighbors was circumstance. The biggest thing connecting us to them was service
On our first night in Dallas, we all participated in an activity called “Connections”. The idea is that one person stands up and starts listing things about his or her life, such as “I have three sisters”, or “I have studied abroad in Spain” and as soon as one scholar hears a phrase that is also true of him, he will say “Connection!” and run up and link arms with the first person. He will then start listing things about his life and so on and so forth until eventually everyone is connected. I’ve participated in this activity four times and never seen it fail. No matter how diverse the group, there is always a thread of connection.
I’m passionate about Elks Scholar Service Trips because I see the same sense of connection develop between the scholars and the people they serve. By taking time to meet a need or hear a story, they are extending an arm and linking with a neighbor. Connection makes us feel richer, regardless of our socioeconomic status.
So, as I finalize plans for the Spring Elks Scholar Service Trip to New Orleans in March, I am grateful to know that in the case of every Elks Scholar Service Trip, a scholarship brought us together and service will only strengthen our bond. I could not have asked for a better week of learning, serving and connecting with my neighbors and Elks family