Elks make a special day for 1,800 special needs guests

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QUESTION: What kind of a cookout serves 1,600 hamburgers and as many hot dogs, pound-upon-pound of potato salad, unlimited watermelon, lemonade and 5,000 gifts?

ANSWER: It’s the Association of Rhode Island Elks annual 365 Outing, an ageless heart-warming event that began over a quarter-century ago at Rocky Point Park. The event for special needs people was held last Thursday was held under a sparkling sun at the Masonic Youth Center off Long Road in Warwick.

“This is absolutely an incredible day,” said Mark Eaton, former Exalted Ruler of Warwick’s Tri-City Lodge, who now serves as chairman of the picnic. “We had 300 people four years ago and Leo Blanchette (Rhode Island’s highest ranking Elk) asked me to grow this event.”

Last Thursday, upwards of 200 volunteers – mostly members from 10 Elks lodges in the state – worked the event that smashed all previous records by serving 1,800 Special Needs people who came from all corners of the state.

“This makes me especially proud to be an Elk!” exclaimed Joseph J. Solomon, president of the Warwick City Council who is also a member of Lodge 14 on West Shore Road. “This is exactly what our organization does; gives back to the community in a number of different ways. It’s really rewarding – and important – to help those people in need.”

“This is no ordinary outing,” deadpanned Joseph J. Solomon Jr., a Warwick State Representative, who also took in last Thursday’s event. “I’ve never seen anything so amazing; what an extraordinary act of love and caring for our state’s Special Needs community.”

And, that caring came in many forms.

While there was a seemingly endless supply of food – served by smiling men and women who made sure each and every one or the 1,800 special needs guests were recognized. Gifts included real wristwatches and wristbands, beads of all colors and special inflatable items like musical instruments, most especially the highly-popular guitars.

“This is what our lodges do,” Blanchette, who as noted is the state’s top-ranking Elk and lives in Warwick, offered. “We are about the communities – and the people – where we live. We enjoy giving back and helping people from all walks of life.”

But as the father-and-son Solomon tandem – as well as other folks who took in their first-ever 365 Outing – concurred: “I doubt if there’s a non-profit anywhere that can duplicate what’s happening here today.”

Especially since the Elks received “two huge helping hands” as Eaton, Blanchette and Grand Lodge Committeeman David Cioe wanted it known, that “really pushed this event over the top.”

The first important assist, as Eaton called it, came per order of Warwick Fire Chief James McLaughlin who sent along not one but two fire apparatus at different times of the event.

“The Chief told me he wanted to make sure everyone was safe, especially since today was on the humid side” said Eaton, “so he sent firefighters with an Engine and Special Hazards Truck. And those guys (Pete Angilly, Bill Lloyd and Dan Vale) were great; they mingled with the special needs people and gave them the always-popular red, plastic fire hats.”

Yet another special show of special support came from the Lombardi family of Warwick that owns and operates New England Frozen Lemonade. They sent a truck and staffer who scooped cup-upon-cup of the chilled treat from start to finish.

Bob Caramante, Lodge 14’s resident Mister Disc Jockey played everything from doowop to oldies music during Tri-City’s Thursday Night Car Cruise and set up his equipment and filled the air with a variety of sounds during the outing.

Likewise, the Rhode Island Shriners upheld their tradition and sent three always-popular clowns while members of the Damhsa Irish Dance Studio entertained many people in the special crowd with an impressive performance. The day also featured a special appearance by magician Tom Holme.

Although there were many Elks manning the propane powered gas grills, the cooking of all the hot dogs and hamburgers was under the supervision of Jack Whalen, who for years has been known as the event’s “fantastic grill master”, who at times was ably assisted by guys like Frankie Perrotta Emile Fontaine of the East Providence Elks and Phil Malouin from Coventry.

“I think people will remember today for a long, long time,” Lori Eaton, Lodge 14’s energetic Exalter Ruler, said. “This picnic grows with new clients and new friends every year.”

She also noted that after talking with a number of volunteers that they’ve pledged to come back next year.

“The feeling at the end of the day is one of fulfillment,” Lori Eaton went on. “(Her husband) Mark did an awesome job orchestrating this year’s picnic as he has in the past, each year growing the numbers with the help of Deb Mangina and Maureen Sullivan. I am very proud to be a part of this; it is a great day to be an Elk!”

When asked now the event got its name and where funding for such a huge event is generated, Mark Eaton simply smiled and mused: “We pay a penny a day every day of the year to run this event!”

In truth, a penny-a-day from each dues paying Elk in Rhode Island goes into a special account entitled the 365 Outing fund and that, in part, as Eaton later explained helps pay for the unique outing.

Meanwhile, the Elks Association of Rhode Island gets a grant – an extra special one – as Eaton called it, from the Elks National Foundation to help pay for the unusual and unmatched 365 Outing that last Thursday upheld the non-profit’s famed slogan “Elks care, Elks share!” 

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