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Are We Having Fun Yet?

by Jim O'Kelley
Director, Elks National Foundation

(This is the fifth 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.)

Many of us have been mostly staying at home for two months now, which begs the question, “Are we having fun yet?”

In answering that question, I can’t speak for everyone, but after crashing one of their virtual happy hours, I can speak confidently for the folks at Ferndale, Michigan, Lodge No. 1588. That crew is having a ball.

Ferndale is a suburb of about 20,000 people, just across the Eight Mile from Detroit. A bedroom community in the 1920s and ’30s, Ferndale boomed along with the auto industry in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. In fact, today, it still derives its nickname from a catchy 1960s advertising campaign that caught: Fashionable Ferndale.

Sarah Ignash leads the T-Rex Walking Club to fame, if not fortune.
As the economy went, so went Ferndale. The city has had its ups and downs since that heyday, and the financial crisis hit it hard. But these days, Ferndale is fashionable again. The city is growing, and the buzz word around town is “development.”

Back in 2002 when he opened his establishment, a local restaurateur says there were maybe six restaurants in a two-block radius. “Now, there’s more like 26.”

Citing its nightlife, the Detroit Free Press recently described Ferndale as “one of the trendiest spots in metro Detroit.”

The Lodge, with a great corner location on the main drag, has ebbed and flowed with the community. Like the city, right now, the Lodge is flowing. Membership has more than doubled since 2015, from 253 to 616. And with an average age of 50.66, the Lodge is the youngest in Michigan and the sixth youngest in the nation. Importantly, the Lodge’s demographics reflect Ferndale’s diverse population.

Back in 2007, Ferndale elected Michigan’s first openly gay mayor. The city of just 20,000 hosts two metro-area Pride celebrations and is home to one of the 10 largest LGBTQ community centers in the country.

“Lots of members are part of the gay community,” acknowledges Kate Reynolds, the 39-year-old Lodge Chaplain. “But we’re not gay or straight. We’re all just Elks.”

Kate is a hustler. She’s a hairdresser by trade and now owns Hair by K8, renting space from a collaborative salon in town. She also works part-time at Wayne State School of Medicine and takes classes at Henry Ford College. And she rescues pit bulls and wants to start fostering them. Five years ago, she found time to join the Lodge.

“I work long hours,” she says. “It’s nice to be able to stop somewhere after work and see all your friends. That’s kind of what the Lodge is.”

Despite her busy schedule, she quickly became an active member. She now serves on the House Committee, chairs the award-winning Beautification Committee, and manages the Lodge’s rental space.

“I like to be a little part of everything,” she says.

During the pandemic, Kate has taken on another role. She hosts the Lodge’s virtual happy hour. Many Lodges have embraced technology to keep members connected through virtual happy hours and the like. Most Lodges hold them weekly. In Ferndale, they do it daily, from 7 to midnight.

“Some nights, I’m not up for it,” Kate admits. “I just want to watch TV or whatever, but I set my alarm every day for 6:45 so I can start up the Zoom chat and send the link to the email list.”

At 3 p.m. on March 16, Governor Gretchen Whitmer shuttered the state’s bars and restaurants. The next night for St. Patrick’s Day, Ferndale Lodge held its first virtual happy hour. Eighteen people attended. Now, as many as 70 attendees will drop in throughout the night.

“We still want to be together,” Kate explains. “At initiation, I tell new members that the Lodge is their second living room.

“I was there four or five times a week. I stop in for a drink after work. (Sometimes more than one drink, and I’d have to Uber home.) You take that routine out of your schedule, and it leaves a hole.”

The response has been amazing. One grateful member left a bottle of booze on Kate’s porch. Others have offered to contribute toward the Zoom subscription.

ER Phil Carbon has been helping his wife, Connie, recover from surgery. She had a minor setback recently, but each new day brings a small victory.

“They’re not victories, though, if you can’t share them with the people who matter most,” he reflected in a newsletter article. He attends each happy hour. “Our Lodge doors may be shut, but our hearts and friendship are always open.”

Immediate PER Chuck Pankey-Fanning and his husband, Mark Fanning, the Lodge Treasurer, wouldn’t dream of missing happy hour. Recently, they went up north to deliver supplies to Chuck's 72-year-old mother, do odd jobs around her house, and check on their camper. They stayed in the camper, and each night, jumped on Zoom to join the happy hour.

“We missed our friends,” he says.

“The happy hours have been a lifesaver,” says Sarah Ignash, a small business owner who has struggled with the enormity of shutting down and laying off 13 people. “They really do help us stay connected and not feel so isolated.”

“It’s a nice way to hang out while we’re social distancing,” Kate says.

Lately, the happy hour has been as trendy as Ferndale’s normally vibrant downtown. The incoming State President was there the night I attended. Other dignitaries have dropped by as well, to hang out with other Elks and enjoy the fellowship and fun.

At the hour of 11, PER Jeff Bolen or another member leads the Toast. The virtual happy hours aren’t quite the same as being at an Elks Lodge, but they may be the next best thing.

“We’re having fun,” says Loyal Knight Oscar Renautt, “but we’re not making fun of the situation. We’re coping with the pandemic. You still cry, but the tears come from laughter.”

Sometimes the laughter leads to brilliant outcomes, too. One night, Sarah the small business owner told a story at the happy hour. She had seen an article about a group of people parading around their town in inflatable costumes and figured she could do the same in Ferndale.

“I’ve had an inflatable T-Rex costume for many years,” she says.

She figured she could use the costume to spread a little joy and cheer—“If I need it, so do others”—so she created a Facebook event to get started. Within two hours of posting, nearly 200 people had expressed interest.

“I immediately canceled the event,” she says. “I didn’t want to encourage people to gather right after the stay-at-home order. That would have been incredibly irresponsible.”

When she told the story at the happy hour, however, her audience was much smaller … and they loved the idea. Kate and another member ordered costumes on the spot.

“I got a hippo,” Kate says. “It was pink and sparkly and reminded me of my niece. I figured I could wear it to her birthday party.”

Sarah was willing to try again if they kept the event secret, and thus was born the clandestine T-Rex Walking Club, which has gained worldwide notoriety for Ferndale. The walking club has been in the news in Detroit but also Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Dubai. Everyone seems to be talking about the secret walking club that’s spreading joy in Ferndale.

“We’re viral,” says Chuck. “I’ve fielded about 70 questions from people all over the state, plus requests from all the news outlets that contacted us.”  

“Almost all of our walking members are members of the Ferndale Elks,” Sarah explains.

The club, whose ranks have swelled to 25 inflatables, goes out once or twice a week, but never advertises where.

“We don’t want to encourage people to gather,” says Sarah, who usually walks as a pink unicorn. “Also, the element of surprise is truly the most enjoyable part of the walks! Kids run from their houses or backyards, freaking out with excitement. It is so much fun! People who are out walking, jogging, riding bikes or driving get a big kick out of us too! It’s just not something you would ordinarily see.”

The community response has been overwhelmingly positive. One killjoy threatened to call the police, insisting that the walkers were violating social distancing etiquette, but Sarah dismisses that.

“Our tails and size force social distancing,” she laughs. “We require our inflatables to be the ones that fully cover you and keep you contained. Our blowers (which keep us inflated) blow into our suits, not out. And we wear masks.”

Besides the killjoy, everyone else seems to love the walking club.

“One person told me it was the best day of quarantine,” Kate says.

“We had no idea we’d get so much attention,” says Sarah, who, ironically, used to live in fear of viral fame. “Going viral as a big pink unicorn is turning out to be fun. … The club has been an absolute blast.”

Still, the Ferndale Elks would happily trade their newfound fame for the chance to gather in person again.

“The Elks have become like family to us over the years,” Sarah says. “There is something very special about walking into our Lodge and spending the first 15 minutes greeting people and giving hugs.”

When the Lodge does reopen, it likely will do so at partial capacity. And there may not be much hugging.

“We’ll bump elbows or just wave,” Sarah says. “Whatever keeps us all healthy and safe.”

But one day, they’ll return to their Euchre fundraisers and karaoke nights, their live bands and ugly sweater parties, their tabletop Jenga and adult slushies, even their Drag Queen Bingo.

Until then, they’ll walk, and they’ll Zoom, and they’ll find new ways to have fun.

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.

Want more about the T-Rex Walking Club? Here's an article in the Detroit Free Press. Google them for lots more.

Need an invite to Ferndale Lodge's virtual happy hour? Comment below, and we'll hook you up.

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