by John Kavula
Elks Scholar Fellow
At 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, January 12, I was finally able to breathe a sigh of relief. After a week of long days running around with kids at the Boys and Girls Club and serving in the Mississippi sun followed by little sleep, my first Elks Scholar Service Trip was over. While it certainly wasn’t easy, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
I like to think I have one of the best jobs in the world—I get to travel around the country, learn about new communities through service and, best of all, meet amazing people while doing so. This year’s winter trip to Biloxi was no exception.
Returning to the Gulf Coast was a bit of a homecoming for me because I lived an hour away from Biloxi for about 10 years. Even though it was only for a week, it was great to see the scholars, many of whom had never been to Mississippi or even the Deep South before, get a taste of what the Gulf Coast has to offer. And I don’t just mean the food!
A highlight, or at least very memorable moment, for many was coming feet away from an alligator while kayaking through a bayou to pick up trash. While most of the scholars didn’t come on the trip expecting to see an alligator four feet away from them, it is certainly a story they will take home to their friends and family, which may not be believed!
As cliché as it may sound, southern hospitality is alive and well and we saw it everywhere. From the man at the car dealership who stayed open late to allow us to rent our van for the week, to the woman who took people to her office for a restroom break while we were working outside all day, to every Elk we met at the Lodges, each person I met during the week ended our conversation by saying, “If y’all need anything while you’re here, give me a call.” This not only made my life easier, but it made the scholars’ experience better. And they are the reason I love my job—without their desire to learn, unique stories and backgrounds, and dedication to service, there would be no service trips.
The trip to Biloxi was important to me not only because the Gulf Coast is special to me, but also because it was the first trip I led as the Elks Scholar Fellow. As with any trip of this kind, there were inevitably hiccups and challenges that forced me to call audibles. But each one was a learning experience, and I will use this trip and everything I learned to make sure the next five are even better.
Next, we’re on to Portland, Oregon, which could not be more different than Biloxi. It is a big city where I have only spent two days of my life. But I could not be more excited to see some familiar faces, meet a new group of awesome scholars, and learn about a new place as the Elks Scholar Service Trip program takes on the Pacific Northwest in March!