In 2015, Leo Blanchette, who serves as Special Deputy of the Grand Lodge of Elks, held a meeting with Mark Eaton of Warwick-based Lodge 14 in regards to the state association’s annual 365 Outing.
At that time, the 365 Outing was a relatively unknown event for the state’s Special Needs Community.
“We were only getting 300 people,” Eaton recalled about the outing once held at famed Rocky Point Park when Philip Noel was Governor as well as a member of the now Tri-City Elks Lodge. “The feeling in Elkdom was that the summertime event could be much, much larger and include many more people.”
So, Blanchette – who is Rhode Island’s top ranking Elk – asked Eaton to grow the event and make it something nice as well as special.
“We went from 300 people to 1,200 back in August of 2015,” Eaton said the other morning. “In 2016 we hosted 1,500 people and last year the count was approximately 1,600 guests.”
Last Thursday at the Masonic Youth Center located off Long Street in the Buttonwoods section of Warwick, the Rhode Island State Association of Elks shattered all previous attendance records, as they treated over 1,800 special needs people to an old-fashioned cookout replete with fantastic food, gifts, games, music by disc jockey Bob Caramante as well as entertainment from the Damhsa Irish Step Dancers, dancing and even Tom “The Great Baldini Magician” Holmes.
“The numbers probably seem a little scary,” Eaton said with a smile. “But thank goodness, we keep growing this event every year; it’s all about what we do at various lodge that have programs for veterans, scholarships, drug awareness, after school programs and more.”
The Elks, as Eaton also related, are known mainly as charitable organizations but the 365 Outing, as people like Gov. Gina Raimondo learned during her first-ever visit last Thursday, is in a class of its own.
“The event is called the 365 Outing because we ask our members to donate a penny a day a year from their annual dues so that we can put on this wonderful and free event,” Eaton explained to Raimondo. “It’s all a team effort from Elks around the state.”
Raimondo, in fact, also learned the 2018 365 Outing was put on over 175 Elks and in some cases their friends.”
Some folks, as the Governor watched with interest, cooked hot dogs and hamburgers on propane gas grills and by day’s end a total of 1,500 hot dogs were gone.
Likewise, the same held true for as many hamburgers that, like the hot dogs, were placed in rolls by an army of volunteers, who also served upwards of 250 pounds of freshly made potato salad and a variety of soda that was donated by Tom and Kathi Zampa of the West Warwick Lodge.
“We don’t have a count on how many bottles of chilled water we served,” Eaton mused. “But let me tell you, by 2 o’clock New England Frozen Lemonade didn’t have a cup left.”
For inside of five hours, the NEFL truck was non-stop with lines as long as ones featuring smiling special needs folks waiting to enjoy the day’s menu.
“Everyone loves the lemonade,” Eaton told the Governor, who was also impressed with the fact that Tony Lombardi, who owns and operates the NEFL operation that has trucks in a number of towns and cities in the state, donates all the lemonade as well as the day’s operator who scooped lemonade nearly non-stop for four hours.
Gov. Raimondo even enjoyed a dance or three with some special needs folks and came armed with three special surprises: an official State of Rhode Island Commendation for Eaton, who chairs the outing as we’ll as Deb Mangina and Maureen Sullivan, the “dynamic duo” as Eaton calls the tireless co-chairpersons.
“Is everyone having fun?” Raimondo asked and was greeted with the thunderous answer “Yeah!”
She then proceeded to congratulate the Association of Rhode Island Elks and all its volunteers for making a difference in the lives of the Special Needs community.
The Governor also learned that Mangina and Sullivan were directly responsible for the day’s record-setting turnout.
“Debbie and Maureen really worked hard … extra hard,” said Eaton. “They personally contacted all the schools and groups homes that serve Special Needs people to get the word out about the 365 Outing. Thank You Governor for honoring them; I’m sure they’ll cherish these citations forever.”
Raimondo, though, wasn’t the only dignitary who made special presentations.
Warwick Mayor Joseph J. Solomon had another special presentation and observed: “It’s absolutely amazing what a penny a day can do. This is without question the epitome of the Elks’ credo Elks Care and Elks Share. Today, we also have volunteerism at its ultimate best.”
Solomon, who actually made two visits to the 365 Outing – one at mid-morning when special needs guests were arriving and began having lunch and another time after he attended a visit from the governor at the Pilgrim Senior Center.
“This is one of the greatest feelings any Elk could have,” Solomon, a member of the Tri-City Elks Lodge, added. “We have over 1,800 guests who are enjoying food, fun and by the time they leave will have received over 6,000 gifts. That’s an act of caring and sharing extraordinaire.”
Thus, the Warwick Mayor summoned Blanchette, State President David Cioe, Vice President West Tom Kramer and Eaton, who is Vice President East, to an area where volunteers were serving food and presented each Elk with an official proclamation for continuing a heart-warming and wonderful tradition “right here in our great City of Warwick.”