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Back to Biloxi

by John Kavula
Elks Scholar Fellow


As the chilly fall weather crept in on Chicago, Programs Relationship Senior Associate Maryann Dernlan and I had the chance to escape to the sunny, 80-degree weather of the Mississippi Gulf Coast for a site visit in preparation for the 2019 Winter Elks Scholar Service Trip.

When I accepted the position of Elks Scholar Fellow nearly five months ago, one aspect of the position that drew me in was the opportunity to choose the location for the Elks Scholar Service Trips. When I found out that Community Collaborations International (CCI), a service organization we had worked with on a past trip, had a program in Biloxi, Mississippi, I knew that I wanted to go to a place that meant so much to me: The Gulf Coast.

Before going to college, I lived just an hour east of Biloxi in Mobile, Alabama, so I jumped at the opportunity to bring a group of Elks scholars, many of whom may have never been to the Gulf Coast, to share the experience of the place I called home for seven years. 

Situated on the water with an unobstructed view of miles of beaches, Biloxi, Miss., Lodge No. 606 and its members welcomed me the first night. I had the chance to meet with Chuck Burdine, the Exalted Ruler of the Lodge, as well as two other Exalted Rulers—Cindy Murphy of Ocean Springs, Miss., Lodge No. 2501 and Terry Hudson of Gulfport, Miss., No. 978. These Lodges often collaborate to do phenomenal work in their communities, and they were just as enthusiastic about the Elks scholars coming down to their neck of the woods. All three Lodges offered to host a dinner for the scholars and discussed the possibility of spending a day serving with the group. Lodge visits are always a highlight of every trip, and it’s clear the Mississippi Gulf Coast Lodges will provide some warm Elks family hospitality.  

The next day, Maryann joined me to see some potential service sites. CCI has strong relationships with many organizations in the Biloxi area and coordinates service projects for college-aged groups looking to serve the area. At Moore Community House, we met with the Director Mary Harrington, who told us about the various family services they have been offering for mothers and their children since 1924. We also had the chance to meet with the director of the East Biloxi Boys and Girls Club where we learned about all the after-school programs the organization offers to students in the area. 

Finally, we met with Judy Steckler, the executive director of the Land Trust for the Mississippi Coastal Plain. The Land Trust works on environmental conservation and restoration projects across the coast. All three of these organizations are distinctly unique, and each has the potential to create a memorable service experience for the scholars.

Our final stop was Camp Wilkes: the place the scholars will call home for the week. Located on the water with scenic views, the camp offers a variety of outdoor activities and, of course, a fire pit, so I know it will be an enjoyable experience for the group.

Although the trip was short, I left Mississippi reminded of the things that make the Gulf Coast so special to me: the hospitality of the people, the beauty of the nature and wildlife, and the sense of pride that people like Chuck, Mary and Judy have in their community, and, in turn, the work they do to make it better. After returning to Chicago, I could not be more excited to travel to Biloxi with a great group of scholars in January to serve in the name of the Elks!

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