Our Elks Lodge Sweetheart
For 29 years, the Texas Elks – a branch of the BPOE Elks, one of the largest and most active fraternal organizations in the world – have sponsored the Texas Elks Camp that provides traditional camp activities from music, sports, bowling and art to indoor rock climbing and swimming for Texas special needs children from seven years old to 15 years old. But more than this, the children who attend this camp find solace, inspiration, encouragement and achievement through camp counselors and the featured activities.
The camp hosts seven one-week sessions each summer, and the children attend camp free of charge, because the camp is 100 percent supported by funds raised by a strategy called the Sweetheart Program, which is implemented at each of the Texas Elks lodges around the state.
The Sweetheart Program raises money for the Texas Elks Children’s Services Inc. (TECSI) as a two-pronged effort: It raises funds for the Texas Elks Camp (see below), as well as the Texas Elks Grants (see below), which also benefit special needs children. While the camp instills an empowering environment, the Texas Elks Grant program provides funding for medical equipment, procedures and the like. Families who need assistance complete a grant application, and it is submitted to the nearest lodge for review.
The focus of the Sweetheart Program is 100 percent on special needs children. Each lodge in Texas chooses a person or sometimes a committee to be the Sweetheart for that lodge. This Sweetheart works hard during the lodge year to raise funds.
The Sweetheart may raise funds in any way they feel comfortable. Examples might be, raffles, auctions, 50/50 split the pot, golf tournament, cook-off, Queen of Hearts card game, public link sales, etc. At the end of the lodge’s year, the lodge Sweetheart turns in monies raised to District. The Sweetheart who raises the most money is crowned District Sweetheart and goes on to the state convention to represent the district and lodge to compete for Texas Elks State Sweetheart.
The District contest is held in April each year and the East District Lodges – Beaumont, Crockett, Huntsville and Liberty compete with the Lodge Sweetheart that raised the most money during the previous year reigning as District Sweetheart for the ensuing year. The East District funds are then combined and the winning Sweetheart represents the district in the State contest in June. The Texas Lodge that raises the most funds for TECSI reigns as State Sweetheart for the next year.
Texas Elks Camp
The Texas Elks Camp is a facility that provides onsite camping for children with special needs between the ages of 6 and 17. This facility is located about 30 miles east of Sequin Texas and south of I-10 in picturesque Palmetto State Park. When traveling between Beaumont and San Antonio on I-10, take a left at Buckee’s at the junction with US-183. You will soon find yourself at The Texas Elks Children’s Service facility, and across the road from the Doyle Pollard Elks RV park.
All funds raised by the Lodge Sweetheart are sent directly to the TECSI program at the end of the Lodge year. The funds from all the Lodges in Texas are used to maintain the Elks facility, to provide a week long summer camp for children with special needs, at no cost to their families, and a percentage is returned to each lodge to be used in their own community to provide prostheses locally. The term prostheses in this instance is described as “anything that will make a disadvantaged child’s life better”.
This facility near Gonsales, TX was originally a part of the Warm Springs foundation and was purchased by the Texas Elks in the early 1940’s and dedicated as a polio hospital. Thanks to a vaccine discovered by Dr. Jonas Salk, the dreadful disease of polio was eradicated in the early 70’s. The facility was reinvented into a Diagnostic Center and camp in 1977. The philosophy at that time was that when children could be observed for a week at a time without their parents around, they could be better diagnosed and were often taken to San Antonio for medical workups. This proved to be a very expensive program so in 1987 it was again repurposed.
At this time the facility became a one week camp each week for 6 weeks in the summer months with 50 children staying for a week. Many of these children had never been away from home without their parents. They have young interns as chaperones, many activities planned and the caregiving parents are given a small break. Most of these children would not be eligible to go to any other summer camp because of their challenges. The motto of this camp is, “having a difference doesn’t make a difference”. It is not unusual to find a child who was at the camp as a camper, wantng to return when they are older as a counselor because it has made such a big impact on them.
Elks are encouraged to attend a camp graduation ceremony on any of the 6 Fridays during summer camp. Your heart and mind will be forever changed. Tears of joy will flow! These young people are so proud of their accomplishments and learning that they are not “handicapped”, but “ handicapable” .
Texas Elks Grants for Special Children
Texas Elks provide a program called “The Prosthetic Grant Program”. This project recognizes a need to help special needs children realize their fullest potential. Texas Elks realize that those special needs children and families face unique challenges. So many children could lead a more full and complete life if only there was some way to meet the specific needs of these children. In acknowledgement of the broad medical needs of special children, this Texas State Elks’ Major Project is now called “Texas Elks Grants for Special Children”.
Many children are unable to gain access to either the equipment or technology they need to allow them to be the productive children they want to be. Texas Elks decided to make these very special children their children. Out of this desire came the final grant program for children. The Texas Elks Children’s Services Board of Directors finalized the grant guidelines that defined the term “prosthetic” in the broadest of possible terms. For purposes of the grant, prosthetic is defined as “any piece of equipment and/or technology which will allow a child to live a more full and complete life.”
Children across the State of Texas have been helped with hearing aids, wheelchairs and computers with Braille capabilities, special braces and a host of other devices that make special needs children stronger and more confident as they face their unique challenges. Texas Elks take great pride in this project. We are proud because we see children in our communities benefit and because this project has inspired us all to become more involved.
This project has also afforded the opportunity for our community to learn about Elkdom and our principles and the many diverse projects we support.
CLICK HERE to find an application for a Special Needs grant.