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Hold My Beer

by Jim O'Kelley
Director, Elks National Foundation

(This is the fourth in a series of posts about the need for Lodges to stay relevant during this time of isolation. To find all posts in the series, click here: #StaySafeBeRelevant.)

Back in 2008, during the sleepy off-season in Charlevoix, a small northern Michigan resort town nestled among three lakes, six locals were watching the paint peel at their favorite watering hole when one of them had an epiphany.

Now, as the popular meme attests, bar stools aren’t the best breeding grounds for big ideas, but every rule has its exception.

So, Chris Jones set down his drink and declared, “We should start an Elks Lodge.”

His friends had a lot of questions, but they were enthusiastic about the idea. None of them knew what they were getting into.

It's good to have goals. Rochelle Roerig tries to sell enough Queen of Hearts tickets to stack higher than her trusty flask.
“We knew nothing,” reminisces Past Exalted Ruler Rochelle Roerig, “except that there was probably something better we could be doing with our time than sitting in a bar. We had a giant learning curve.”

Chris belonged to an Elks Lodge in Missouri, but for obvious reasons, he hadn’t been particularly active since moving to Charlevoix in 1998 or so. Throw in the fact that forming a new Lodge was his idea, and that was enough to get him nominated to reach out to the Michigan Elks Association.

What an interesting first contact that must have been. At the time, Michigan hadn’t chartered a new Lodge in more than 25 years. You can imagine a state officer giving the phone a double take before dusting off a yellowed manual.

The Michigan Elks assigned the late Lynn Cook, who had been PGER Jim Varenhorst’s administrative assistant, and Randy Jackson, of Big Rapids and Muskegon Lodges, respectively, to help organize the new Lodge. Chris, Rochelle and their friends went to work. They held their first organizational meeting at the local American Legion Hall in February 2008.

From the start, the team had a couple of goals in mind.

“We weren’t going to be your Grandfather’s Lodge,” Rochelle says.

By that, she means they were determined not to be known as the cheapest place in town to get a drink. A small, tight-knit community with just 2,500 year-round residents, Charlevoix thrives during the summer tourist season and survives the rest of the year. The organizers weren’t going to take money out of the pockets of their friends and neighbors who worked in bars or owned them.

Second, they targeted an eventual membership of 10 percent of those 2,500 permanent residents.

On September 6—less than eight months after Chris Jones set down his drink and shared his crazy idea—Charlevoix Lodge No. 2856 was instituted with 125 members. For his troubles, Chris earned member No. 1. Rochelle, meanwhile, joined the officer corps, where she has been ensconced ever since.

By 2016, Michigan’s baby Lodge had hit its target membership goal and after bouncing among several different rental locations, was settling into what looked like it could be a long-term arrangement with the VFW.

“The VFW’s membership had dwindled to 30, and their hall and meeting room were basically empty,” Rochelle says.

The rental arrangement turned out to be a win-win. Rental income from the Elks allowed the VFW to keep its beautiful building, and all 30 members ended up joining the Lodge.

So, Charlevoix Lodge was weaving its way into the community fabric and growing as a result.

“We’ve always tried to be creative and have lots of events to draw new members and the community,” Rochelle says.

The officers and House Committee were meeting frequently to engage in forward planning and discuss the best ways to increase participation. They were scheduling events six to eight months out.

The Lodge also joined the Chamber of Commerce and began hosting “Business After Hours” networking events.

“We wanted the businesspeople in town to see what the Elks are all about,” Rochelle says.

They did, and the Lodge kept growing.

By the beginning of this year, the Lodge was pushing 400 members and had negotiated a land contract with the VFW to purchase the building. Ah, the halcyon days of February.

Like most of the country, Charlevoix is hurting now. The primary industry is tourism, and with the state currently shuttered, no one is visiting, or thinking about visiting. Nevertheless, the Lodge is moving forward with its plans to purchase the building.

“We’ve always been frugal with our funds,” Rochelle says. “We estimate that we can easily survive for 90 days without the social room income.”

Still, the Lodge isn’t taking the loss in revenue lying down. During the shutdown, it’s selling takeout burgers on Tuesdays and Fridays, as well as gift certificates for future use—$45 gets you five $10 gift certificates, which are printed in house to save money.

“We’ve had to be creative,” Rochelle says.

That creativity extends to their popular Queen of Hearts fundraiser, which they’ve moved to Facebook during the shutdown. Members sell tickets online and in person when they can, and the Lodge holds a virtual drawing each week. The current pot is more than $3,000.

“With our last drawing, we netted $18,000 for our coffers,” Rochelle says. “It’s an easy way to garner savings for Lodges. If this type of gaming is legal where you are, it’s beyond me why you wouldn’t do it. … We plan to continue the raffle indefinitely.”

The Lodge also plans to continue serving the community despite the pandemic, or maybe because of it.

“We want to do anything we can to assist those in need right now,” Rochelle says.

Normally, the Lodge uses its Gratitude Grant to collaborate with Camp Quality to provide summer adaptive and recreation opportunities for youth with cancer. This year, the Lodge shifted its focus to the pandemic. The Lodge jumped on the grant opportunity, which opened April 1, applying on April 4 to donate the $2,000 grant to the Charlevoix Community Food Pantry. We approved their application on the 6th and mailed a check out on the 10th.

In addition to the grant, the Lodge is encouraging its members to donate non-perishable items directly to the food pantry. The Charlevoix Elks also put up a “Blessing Box” right outside the Lodge.

“A group called Charlevoix Helping Hands set up several Blessing Boxes around town,” Rochelle says. “As soon as we heard about them, we offered to be a location, with the promise that our members would keep the box loaded.”

Lodge members are spreading the word about the Blessing Box on Facebook and in community forums.

“Food, personal hygiene items, beverages,” Rochelle says. “If you need something, take it. We promise to keep it stocked for you.”

The Lodge looks after its own, too. During the shutdown, volunteers are reaching out to other members to see who needs help.

“Particularly our elderly or ill members,” Rochelle says. “We’ve offered to help with whatever they need at this crazy time in our history. We will shop for them and drop items on their porch. Whatever they need.”

Rochelle and the rest of the crew of dedicated, like-minded Elks who keep Charlevoix Lodge running have a lot on their plates right now, and all because Chris Jones had an epiphany 12 years ago. Their home may be closed, but they’ve worked hard to ensure that the Lodge extends beyond the four walls of the club.

They’re finding creative ways to replace some of the Lodge’s lost income. They’re trying to be there for the most vulnerable members of the community. They’re helping members in need.

When we emerge from this pandemic and the small, tight-knit lake community of Charlevoix reflects on how it weathered the storm, they’re going to think of the Elks. That will fill the membership with pride, which is a pretty compelling reason to pay your dues.

It’s also likely that once they’ve found their sea legs, some of the people who drove up to the Lodge, desperately seeking food or supplies, will join.

Better days are on the horizon.

For right now, though, Rochelle says, “All we can do is try to be a positive part of our community. When we do reopen, we’ll have the biggest party ever.”

Has your Lodge found a way to stay relevant to the membership during this crisis? Tell us how in the comments below, and maybe we’ll feature you in the series.

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