Monday, April 30, 2018

Serving by the Blue Ridge Mountains

 by Gabriella Haire
2015 Most Valuable Student Scholar

My name is Gabriella Haire and I am a junior studying biomedical engineering at the University of Minnesota. Beyond dreaming up medical innovations, I enjoy volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House, training for cross country ski races, and exploring new cities one ice cream shop at a time.


Following a typical track practice in March 2015, I received an atypical email. It was an invitation to the Elks Most Valuable Student Leadership Weekend and the promise of an Elks National Foundation scholarship. I was elated as I celebrated in the locker room, but I didn’t fully realize how that email and the Leadership Weekend were just the beginning of my relationship with the Elks.

After a physics lecture in November 2015, I received an email confirming my acceptance to the Winter Elks Scholar Service Trip in Oakland, California. I was eager to connect with Elks scholars for a whole week, rather than just a weekend. As it turned out, a week was nowhere near enough time.

Following a long day of exams this past January, I received an email inviting me to pack my bags for Asheville, North Carolina to spend a week serving and exploring alongside 12 Elks scholars. Again, I was eager to have the opportunity to meet even more scholars, but I was apprehensive that I would spend the week comparing new friendships and experiences to old ones. With that considered, I hopped on a plane with an open mind and John Denver on repeat. I should have known that I’d be wrong; by the end of the first night I was already staying up late talking with newfound friends.

On the first day of service, we bonded over our shared experience in the cold drizzle of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We settled into our home for the week and learned more about each other’s stories. As the week progressed, we learned each other’s passions, developed inside jokes, and embarked on many hikes on the YMCA trail system. Many laughs were shared as we spent the week sacrificing sleep to make the most of our time.

Throughout all my experiences, I have found that Elks scholars are unwaveringly genuine. This authenticity gives way to meaningful connections that last far beyond the time spent together. I have found in these scholars a network of driven individuals with wide-reaching passions. Their dedication challenges me to pursue the best and most authentic version of myself. Without a doubt, I am better because of these people.

As I write this, my computer background is a photo from the steps of the Elks Memorial Building where I am surrounded by the 2015 Top 20 MVS scholars. I am at my desk with a newly framed picture from the Blue Ridge Mountains, and my phone has a handful of messages from various Elks scholars. These items are testaments to the value of Elks scholar relationships, and I eagerly await reuniting with many of them in San Antonio in June at the 150 for 150 Service Trip.


Thursday, April 12, 2018

The Way It's Meant to Be


by Marc Rademaker

2017 Most Valuable Student Scholar


My name is Marc Rademaker and I am a first-year at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. I’m majoring in Biology on the pre-medicine track with a minor in Chemistry.  Traveling to Asheville with my fellow Elks scholars marked my second service trip with the Elks after Santa Monica this past winter.

Entering the Asheville Service Trip, I had very high expectations for the week. My experience in Santa Monica had been so incredible that I couldn’t wait for another great week with the Elks. I was not disappointed. Arriving at YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly, I immediately began to form connections with my fellow Elks scholars. Because it was a smaller trip, we were able to grow close almost immediately while sharing our stories and ambitions with one another. These new friends came from Alaska, Puerto Rico, and everywhere in between to serve together. 

As I witnessed the sunrise on the first day of service, I knew that this week was meant to be something great for all of us. Amidst the days of cleaning up rivers, installing flooring, and cleaning homes, we gained valuable energy and determination from one another. We began to realize our common desire to better ourselves, those around us, and the world as we know it.  Through late-night talks and exploring the beauty and mystery of the mountains, we formed deeper connections.

While it was easy to form connections with Elks scholars, much of the week constituted indirect service. As a result, it was sometimes difficult to see our impact on the people we were serving. However, one powerful way I did see our impact was at the Veterans Restoration Quarters. The organization transformed an old Super-8 Motel into a living space for veterans transitioning out of homelessness. I was able to install flooring with a few of the other scholars in a resident’s room. In a group of perfectionists, the job was destined for greatness. We enjoyed each other’s company through the service we performed, but I was still curious about what I was achieving by simply installing flooring. 

It was not until later in the day that we discovered the story behind the room we were preparing. One of the volunteers at the VRQ, who was a veteran himself, had been living out of his car unbeknownst to the organization. Upon finding out, the staff did not hesitate to clear out a storage room and make it into a home for him. I was awestruck at learning this; that a man who himself was homeless could still find joy in serving those who have served our country. 

It is people like this who drive me to become a better version of myself. I realized, then, that our work that day took the burden off the organization, allowing them to complete other important work. The indirect jobs allow direct, personalized service to happen. Although I never met him, I will remember the selflessness of the man moving into the new room who humbly served others in the same difficult circumstance.

Others, like that veteran and the Elks scholars I met, had a profound impact on me. During thoughtful reflection at the end of each day, we analyzed what we could have done better and how we can apply what we learned to our daily lives. We gained a drive to achieve more in our academics and service at home by seeing that drive reflected in our peers. I saw myself, and who I strive to be, in every person that week: someone who has zest for life, knows the importance of serving others, and is persistent in achieving goals. I saw who I strive to be in the future in those I met at Elks Lodges. I saw the best of humanity in the humility of individuals willing to serve.

Isn’t that the way it’s meant to be?