By Barbara Pash
6:10 AM EST, December 11, 2013
The gift bags are arranged in rows. Red and green and white — the traditional holiday colors. In a few days, a group of volunteers will fill them, assembly line-style, with warm hats and gloves and other goodies. But the best part is yet to come.
On Dec. 21, the Saturday before Christmas, two dozen volunteers will fan out to the three Veterans Affairs hospital facilities in the area to personally deliver the hundreds of bags — a holiday tradition of the Towson Elks Lodge No. 469.
Joe Lancaster is chairman of the Veterans Service Committee in charge of the project. He doesn't know how long the lodge has been distributing gift bags to hospitalized veterans.
"Forever," guessed Lancaster, 65, a Timonium resident and real estate broker who joined the lodge nine years ago and became committee chair four years ago. The tradition dates back well before his time with the lodge.
Founded in 1899, the lodge, at 4 W. Pennsylvania Ave., in Towson, has about 800 members who participate in several fundraisers throughout the year, from bull roasts to summer golf tournaments.
The money pays for the Christmas gift bags that, Lancaster estimated, cost $8 to $10 each for this year's hats and gloves, playing cards, puzzle books and FM radios and earbuds.
The lodge gives out 500 to 600 bags each Christmas, the number determined by the VA Maryland Health Care System, which oversees all the VA facilities in the state.
This year, lodge members will be distributing 520 gift bags to the Baltimore VA Medical Center and Loch Raven VA Community Living and Rehabilitation Center, both in the city, and to Perry Point VA Medical Center, in Cecil County.
"If you can go into their room, they smile, they say 'Thank you,' " Lancaster says of the gift-giving. "Every bag has a Christmas card from the Elks."
The Christmas gifts are one of four annual events the lodge holds for veterans. "All Elks lodges have a mission for veterans," said Lancaster, a United States Army Vietnam War vet.
There is also a Thanksgiving dinner, held at the lodge, baseball outing to Orioles Park at Camden Yards and summer cookout. For the first two events in particular, he said, "it gets them out of the facility and you have a lot of interpersonal contact."
R. David Edwards views the lodge's Christmas gift bags from the opposite angle. Edwards, chief of public and community relations for VA Maryland, coordinates the groups whose volunteer activities benefit the 53,000 veterans in VA facilities.
Edwards can't praise the community groups and veterans-service organizations, from the Elks Lodge to the American Legion and Jewish War Veterans, highly enough. "We get outstanding support," he said, citing a figure of 1,336 volunteers who gave 119,000 hours of service in 2012.
"It's really remarkable and a tremendous asset for our hospitalized veterans," Edwards said.
VA Maryland's local facilities draw veterans from all over state. Edwards said volunteer activities depend on the patient population, whether they're in the acute medical and surgical Baltimore VA Medical Center or long-term rehabilitation and skilled nursing care at Perry Point and Loch Raven VAs.
"Especially around the holidays, when they are far from their family and friends, it's important for them to have community contact that makes them feel appreciated," said Edwards, who, at Christmas, has seen everything from Santa ho-hoing through the halls to groups going from room to room singing carols.
"You have to see the patients' faces when they come around," Edwards said. "They love it."
As for the lodge's Lancaster, he said that he has no difficulty getting volunteers for the holiday gift bag assembly.
"It's a group effort," Lancaster said. "People bring their children to help, to see the value of volunteering."