About three years ago, Skinner Middle School hosted a bingo fundraiser at the Denver Elks Lodge #17, 2475 West 26th Ave. Like many school fundraisers, turnout was great and the club was full.
“One of the older members was bartending and he mentioned that we should join the Elks because they were looking for younger members,” recalled Jim Wolf, a Skinner parent at the time. “I don’t know that any of us were all that interested, but the event space is great and the location is phenomenal with a beautiful view of downtown.”
Shortly thereafter, he and fellow neighborhood parents Travis Caldwell, Rod Kazenske and Ben Dolegowski filled out applications and became members. Today, Jim is the Elks’ membership chair, and his wife, Lauren Wolf, heads up events for the lodge. Other former Brown parents who now serve on the nine-person board of directors include Brian Ceccanti and Garrett Phillips.
“It really all started at Brown [International Academy elementary school],” Lauren said, recalling that many of the parents there became friends as they raised their children together and worked to improve their neighborhood schools. “Our kids are older now and don’t want anything to do with us,” she laughs, “but we all still want to get together and do things for our community. The Elks was a great way to do that”
Jim said they quickly realized that the building was being underutilized and the organization’s charitable mission underfulfilled. The North Denver location is the only Elks Lodge in all of the city of Denver, but only about 15 of the 200 members were very active, and many of the lodges in surrounding suburban cities had much larger active memberships, some with more than 1,000 members.
The new Elks set out to increase active memberships by promoting the Elks at their kids’ schools and through their neighborhood networks, holding school fundraisers and other community events. Over three years, the lodge has doubled its membership to 418 members today, with 29 applicants awaiting initiation.
But don’t let the concept of initiation scare you off, Jim said. “We want to dispel the idea that this is a drinking club for men only,” he said. “It’s open for everyone to join and the charitable function can only be as successful as our membership is active.” They are currently bringing on about 10 to 15 new members each month, making it the largest growing Elks Lodge in all of Colorado.
Jim said the largest increase in members has been women.
Bernie Penrose and Joan Verhey were the first women to join the Denver Elks back in 1994, and they were both having dinner at the lodge Dec. 5.
“Our friend was the exalted ruler,” she said. (Jim explained this is a fancy name for the lodge president, who is elected to a one-year term to lead the board of directors and run the lodge. Justin Jones is the current exalted ruler, serving in his second consecutive term.) “He was determined to bring the first women in, and he asked me. I told him I’d only do it if he’d talk Joanie into joining, and he did,” Penrose said.
She motioned toward the bartender, Pete, and said he had initiated them. Asked what she likes most about being an Elk, she said she enjoys being one of the officers because she gets to do a little bit of everything, including introducing new members.
Verhey said she most likes working with the veterans at the Lodge.
Chris Sandoval is the chair of the Elks’ veterans committee. He’s been a member about five years and also joined while volunteering for Skinner Middle School. “I met Joanie and Bernie and joined less than a month later,” he said.
He applies for grants from the national organization, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the United States of America, which was founded in 1842 and originally called the Jolly Corks. Through Denver Elks Lodge #17, founded in 1889, Sandoval has brought in thousands of dollars to help local veterans. On Dec. 21, the Elks will host veterans from the National Guard Army Reserve for a Christmas party to thank them for their service.
“[The Elks’] essence is the heart that people have for the community,” said Al Habercorn, also a member of the veterans committee. “It’s so inspiring to see the camaraderie as people work together to help others out. There’s a lot of focus on service that really lends itself to looking outward instead of inward all the time.”
Sandoval also chairs the scholarship foundation for the lodge, which has provided more than $4,000 in scholarships to North High School students.
“We are trying to promote the mission of the Elks: charity, justice, brotherly love and fidelity,” Jim said, recounting multiple recent events or fundraisers they have hosted for local schools, the Colorado Special Olympics, Bienvenidos Food Bank, among others. “It’s all the things we have been doing for our community for many years on the playground but now we have a space we can continue those with the backbone of a nationwide organization that’s committed to giving back to charity. It’s just a great place where, while all of our kids are aging and going off to college, we can gather and continue all our good work.”
Jim said #17 doesn’t have a specific goal for membership, but wants to continue encouraging more active membership and to expand outside of just Northwest Denver. “We’re just getting started,” he said.
Beyond membership, the Elks also support charity through event rentals at their building, which boasts four event spaces, including a full kitchen and bar in the upstairs dining area that overlooks a breathtaking downtown Denver skyline. They just installed a brand new HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) system on all three floors of the East wing of the building and have made it available for lease as commercial space. He said they’ll be able to use the additional revenue from renting that space to help pay for needed upgrades in the West wing’s event space and to bolster more charitable giving.
He said the Elks were in negotiations to redevelop the space at one time, but have since shifted their energy toward better utilizing the space they have. “We have no intentions of ever moving,” he said. “For us, we just want to refocus our energy on using the space we have to meet the needs of our community and to give back to charity.”
Schools, nonprofits and residents are invited to rent the space for private parties; just email firstname.lastname@example.org. They are still booking holiday and new year’s parties.
Those interested in leasing the commercial space in the East wing should call Huff & Leigh at 720-572-5787.
All photos by Sabrina Allie.