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Baby Elks Take on San Diego: A Week of Service, Laughter and Understanding

by Eric Xia
2017 Most Valuable Student Scholar

My name is Eric Xia, and I’m currently in my third year studying medical science and economics at Boston University. As an aspiring physician, I was undoubtedly excited about the idea of serving and learning about the many issues facing San Diego; however, the idea of spending an entire week with 22 strangers across the country was a little nerve-racking. I can now confidently say that the Winter Elks Scholar Service Trip was one of the most fulfilling and transformative experiences of my life.

My most vivid memory of feeling like a part of the Elks family was at the 150 for 150 celebration at the 2018 Elks National Convention in San Antonio. In just a few short days, I scrubbed sleeping mats for those experiencing homelessness, connected with 150 of the most incredible and kindhearted scholars, and met countless Elks members, including the representatives from the Westbrook, Conn., Lodge No. 1784 which sponsored my scholarship!

So, when the opportunity came to learn, serve, and connect in the name of the Elks, I knew I couldn’t miss it. Because Boston Medical Center is the largest safety net hospital in New England, I was already familiar with the socioeconomic struggles facing many metropolitan cities. While I knew of San Diego’s warm and beautiful climate, I also knew of the struggles and inequality that undoubtedly come with it.

Luckily, from the first night, Elks Scholar Fellow John Kavula taught us that, “without taking the time to reflect and empathize with those you’re serving, service is no different from work.” Rather than seeing homelessness as a stigma, I immediately learned the importance of being aware of the assumptions I make so that I could make genuine connections with my neighbors.

At Father Joe’s Villages, which serves 3,000 meals per day for people experiencing homelessness, I got to learn about the amazing facilities (day care, therapy, pharmacy, etc.) as well as the rising housing prices due to gentrification. Seeing the tight-knit community filled with friends joking, sharing food, and helping one another was truly eye-opening. Through another direct connection, I met Mark, a veteran with a PhD who gave all his money to his children. I learned about his vast literary knowledge from Tolstoy to Twain, as well as his past successes as an artist and small-business owner.

San Diego contains one of the highest homeless veteran populations in the country, and spending time at the Chula Vista Veterans home was incredible. Through serving barbecue, cleaning around the facility, and playing trivia and bingo with the veterans, it was clear this was also a close community. One particularly memorable experience was with Kim, an Elk and veteran who dedicates herself to improving veterans’ lives—from applying for national grants to baking desserts using lemons from the garden. When I told her of my passion for medicine, she personally took me through the clinic to better answer my questions. She epitomizes the Elks’ values, and I strive to one day live up to her example. 

We were also able to experience the indirect aspect of service by packaging hygiene kits, bagging oranges, and sorting through clothes at the organizations we served. Contributing to these amazing organizations is so fulfilling, especially given that volunteers are often needed for them to function. We learned about the populations served and the amount of good these organizations do.

I'd be remiss if I didn’t mention the camaraderie and love felt at the El Cajon, Calif., Lodge No. 1812. Speaking with Elks who were obviously so excited to meet us was so heart-warming. We connected over organic syntheses and childhood interests in kite-flying and aviation before ending the night with good old-fashioned karaoke. A flood of emotions rushed over me upon leaving; as someone who has been granted the privilege of pursuing my passion for medicine due to these scholarships, being shown this amount of care and support was quite overwhelming. 

Throughout the trip, I had an amazing time connecting with incredible scholar-leaders from across the country while exploring areas like Mission Beach and La Jolla Cove, and bonding over meals, nightly reflection, and games. While the trip still seems like a dream, I came out with a broader outlook, invaluable connections, and my closest friends. Whether it be immediately signing up for the next service trip, scheduling a local scholar meet-up, or getting involved with a local Elks Lodge, I guarantee that it'll be an experience of a lifetime!

So, what are you waiting for? Go out there and connect with your #ElksFamily!

The Elks National Foundation offers three Elks Scholar Service Trips annually. These trips provide scholars the opportunity to learn about societal issues, serve those in need in the name of the Elks, and connect with their Elks family from across the country. For more information about the trips, visit enf.elks.org/ScholarServiceTrips.


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