Tell me when you became an Elk, and more importantly, why?

I became an Elk approximately eight years ago. I had been around the organization for some time prior to that because my husband, Chris, had joined when he joined the dart league. We would attend different events and activities with the Elks and honestly, I always felt included even as a non-member. At that time, I was an involved mom who was involved with the PTA, the Junior Woman’s Club of Arlington and I was a Girl Scout leader.

One day, my neighbor who was a single mother came home in the middle of the day to check on her son who was home sick and while she was on lunch, her apartment went on fire. Her son was lucky to survive, and she lost everything with the exception of her dog and son. She didn’t have insurance and her life changed in an instant.

As someone who had experienced a house fire when I was 8, I knew the devastation and I knew I had to do something. I decided to work with some of the amazing volunteers within our Kearny community and put together a spaghetti dinner. At the time, my husband called Bill Dow Jr. from the Kearny Elks and immediately he agreed to help.

He offered the lodge so I could host the event, he told us the Elks would help with anything we needed, and, in the end, they made 10 gallons of homemade sauce and sausage. The thing that resonated with me at the time was how quickly they agreed to help someone that they didn’t even know.

As it turns out the event had to be relocated to the LCCC because we had such a great response and the lodge would not be able to hold that many. When the event started, there were the Elks who donated the sauce and sausage actually attending the fundraiser for my neighbor. It was inspiring to see people just be amazing members of the community and to see people rise to the occasion for no other reason but to do what is right. At that point, I wanted to be like them, so I asked my husband to sponsor me and I became an Elk.

I understand you may be only the second woman to become ER. It’s kind of great especially since we now have our first female mayor. Tell me what that means to you.

It’s amazing being a female Elk, especially given that the history of our organization was male. Throughout the course of the history of the Elks, the ladies were always supporting the efforts of their spouses and had the Ladies Auxiliary. Those woman set the foundation of what we see today.

I am actually the third female Exalted Ruler from our lodge; however, I have a lot of support within the organization from other wonderful women who are just as giving. Once Belleville Elks decided to merge with us, we gained even more women in leadership roles within the organization. The Elks have come full circle and now have had ladies serve in several capacities. I am lucky to have been able to witness three wonderful ladies become New Jersey State Elk Association Presidents, two of whom have been present at our annual Incredible Duck Race.

What are some of the things you’d like to do in your first term as ER?

As I mentioned, our lodge had a recent merger. We have been able to open up our lodge to members from Belleville, but like any new marriage, we have had some obstacles. The needs of the Belleville community are just as diverse as the needs of the Kearny community, and it is my goal as the Exalted Ruler to ensure we are doing our best to meet the needs in both communities. Over the last few years, we have put a lot of programs in place that help support Kearny and it is time to evaluate and execute how we can do something similar in Belleville.

What are some of the things you’d like to continue to do that have already begun?

We do some amazing things at our lodge and it brings me great joy to see them continue. My goal is to ensure we not only continue these programs, but we identify additional opportunities to be there for both of the communities we serve. Our lodge started in 1906 and as a service organization, we always want to provide programs that have value and give back to our communities.

Currently, our lodge helps support many of our schools with donations and supplies to help support positive behavior such as the rewards system put in place at several of the elementary schools. We support drug education and awareness through handing out literature and sponsoring our local teens to attend the Path to Peer Leadership program that the NJ Elk Drug Awareness Committee hosts annually in Long Branch.

As we all know, the opioid epidemic is ongoing and anything we can do to ensure we are helping children make positive life choices is extremely important. Our Special Children’s Committee supports our special-needs community with donating educational materials, hosting events, opening up Turtle Back Zoo for Friendship Day and sponsoring campers to attend Elks Camp Moore.

The amount we do for veterans is unmatched. Many of our members take time out of their weekends to deliver brand new furniture and household supplies to veterans who are transitioning from homelessness to housing. Our Veteran’s Committee also provides care packages to the patients at the local VA hospital, and we donate clothing and toiletries to the Kearny VOICE.

We host many youth programs including our Hoop Shoot, Soccer Shoot, Batter’s Up programs and we provide books and coats to children in need. For the last four years, we have been fortunate to host and help coordinate the Kearny Giving Tree with our current Mayor and active member Carol Jean Doyle. I think that continuing these fantastic programs while working on increasing our visibility and commitment to the Belleville community as well will really help us grow as an organization and encourage others to join our herd.

Give us an idea of some of the bigger things you do within the Elks

In order to do great things, you need to find ways to ensure the funds are there when you get a request for assistance. That need to serve the community gave birth to an idea of what has become our largest annual fundraiser, the Incredible Duck Race. Annually we close down a portion of Belgrove Drive and host this event.

We offer live music, vendors, food trucks, a beer garden, a scavenger hunt and a rubber duck race. All of the proceeds of this event help fund the many programs our lodge offers and I am proud to say that I have been the coordinator since the inception. When I am not requesting donations, looking for participants or selling raffle tickets I also serve our North Central District as the Elks National Foundation chairwoman.

Both of these activities help us make our charitable dreams a reality.

You often tell me how great your team is — tell me about them and why they are so special?

My team is so special because they are just as the word implies … a team. They work together to ensure we can provide our programs and take care of the needs within our communities. I have members who are happy to rise to the occasion and pitch in regularly.

Many team members work full-time but help out in the lodge in many capacities. I have a local educator who regularly cleans our lodge. This may seem like a small task, but given we are open to the public anywhere from 6 to 7 days a week having a member step in helps use the funds that a cleaning company would cost toward charity.

I have a few other members who are always willing to assist with the basic maintenance of the lodge and this helps us save a tremendous amount of money annually. Our members tend to show up and participate in many of our programs even though many of them have very active lives. As I say often, many hands equal light work and with their participation, we are able to accomplish so much more than many other service organizations.

Our organization thrives because of everyone pitching in and that is exactly why I enjoy being part of this organization. This mentality is something I’ve witnessed at both a lodge and district level. In fact, many of the volunteers on the day of the duck race are from all over our district.

In conclusion

We welcome others to see what our lodge is about and the many programs that we offer. You can follow our Facebook page: Kearny-Belleville Elks 1050 to see what is scheduled or visit our club at 601 Elm St. Our next event will be a dual fundraiser with the VFW Post to help collect donations for recently deployed soldiers and veterans.

That event will be a food truck festival with live music on Belgrove Drive on April 6 from noon to 5pm. We anticipate having some vendors and 14 different food trucks. There is free admission and we welcome either gift card donations (Visa, Mastercard, AMEX), toiletries, underwear, winter gloves or T-shirts.

We also will accept monetary donations. This April we will be hosting clothing and shoe donation drop off to help benefit our Special Children’s Committee. We ask that all donations be in bags of 5 pounds or less.

We host a monthly breakfast for only $8 per adult and $6 for children and seniors. This month takes place on Sunday, April 14 from 9 a.m. to noon. We look forward to making everyone feel “wELKom

Learn more about the writer ...

Kevin A. Canessa Jr. is the editor of and broadcaster at The Observer, a place where he has served on and off since 2006. He is responsible for the editorial content of the newspaper and website, the production of the e-Newspaper, writing several stories per week (including the weekly editorial), conducting live broadcasts on Facebook Live, including a weekly recap of the news — and much more behind the scenes. Between 2006 and 2008, he introduced the newspaper to its first-ever blog — which included podcasts, audio and video. Originally from Jersey City, Kevin lived in Kearny until 2004, lived in Port St. Lucie. Florida, for four years until February 2016 and in March of that year, he moved back to West Hudson to return to The Observer full time. Click Here to send Kevin an email.