Palm Coast, FL  (May 15, 2021) – It’s a little known program that can have a huge impact for family members of the U.S. Armed Forces when emergencies strike, helping to alleviate some of the worry while active duty members are deployed and serving far from home.

Hosting the East Central Florida district Army of Hope picnic on Saturday, the Elks Lodge #2709 welcomed local and state dignitaries for the celebration that coincided with National Armed Forces Day on May 15th.

A Florida Elks’ program, the Army of Hope has disbursed more than half a million dollars to families of active duty service members since its inception more than 10 years ago according to Jerry O’Gara, chair of the Central Florida District who has 43 lodges under his purview.

“Army of Hope is a major state project for Florida Elks that takes care of active military families. Where most veteran or military causes take care of those who have been discharged, disabled or deceased, we take care of active duty military families,” said O’Gara.

Not well known in the past, O’Gara says he’s working to make the Army of Hope program more visible for those in need and to those willing to help. He was humbled by the attendance of high profile dignitaries on Saturday.

“I just wanted to have it on the record that we had it,” he said with appreciation.

Among the guests, Elks Florida State President Rudy Masi, Sr. teared up when talking about the Elks’ programs to honor and support veterans and active duty military. Over the years they’ve included 3-day trips to Washington DC, and recognition for bringing the most WWII veterans to the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor.

“Elks not just in Florida, but all over the country say ‘As long as there’s a veteran, Elks will never forget them’ but Elks also do a lot for actively deployed military,” said Masi.

“Our Army of Hope helps with both – from issues with somebody to cut their grass to a house payment or somebody to talk to, we get out there and do it, same with the veterans, so we do both.”

While Masi has never served in the military, he remembers the Vietnam era vividly, and had goosebumps during the performance from the Coastal Florida Police & Fire Pipes and Drums, as part of the day’s program.

Photo courtesy Heather Thompson/HT Productions

“My draft number was 361 and I never would have gotten drafted,” he shared. “My whole life I’ve felt like I wanted to pay it back. Today was moving. Great memories, a lot of reflecting.”

He encourages everyone to thank a veteran or active duty service member.

“Thank them for their service,” he said. “We need to get back to focusing on what’s really meaningful, how were we founded, what are we here for. We wouldn’t have what we have today if it weren’t for those sacrifices.”

In a show of camaraderie, Bob Swink, chairman of the board at the Titusville lodge attended the event, noting the close proximity of Patrick Space Force Base and the Kennedy Space Center in his community, while paying homage to the large contingent of military families across Florida.

Titusville Elks Lodge Chairman of the Board Bob Swink joins Jerry O’Gara, Ellks Central Florida District Army of Hope Chairman to celebrate the picnic in Palm Coast on Saturday, May 15, 2021.

“The families across Florida are military families and so many of those people serving, the military doesn’t pay very well and are now living in housing or based off housing somewhere,” said Swink dropping a $100 donation off to help. “If they have problems with certain things like the car, appliances or something like that, we can help them out.”

In addition to showcasing the many programs offered by the Elks, the event was supported by members of the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office, Flagler County Emergency Management, and local elected officials.

Retired Navy, Flagler County Commissioner Greg Hansen delivered remarks during the event.

“We always try to take care of our own when we’re on active duty, but when we’re deployed for six months, there’s things that happen – the dryer breaks, the house floods, the refrigerator conks out, and organizations like this step in and fix it,” shared Hansen.

“The Army of Hope does good things. It’s a great program and we support it one hundred percent. It was an honor today to be able to speak.”

The Army of Hope support is open to ANY active duty military family in need across Florida, and the request for assistance form may be found here. To help support the Army of Hope fund, visit here.

Featured Photo: Elks Florida State President Rudy Masi, Sr. and Flagler County Commissioner Greg Hansen attend the Army of Hope Picnic held at the Elks Lodge in Palm Coast on May 15, 2021.

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