WOODBRIDGE, NJ - Ten-year-old Brianna Feeney has been selected as the Central New Jersey Area Four Alternate Ambassador for the Elks Special Children’s Committee. South Plainfield Elks Lodge #2298 sponsored Brianna as one of the state’s eight ambassadors and alternate ambassadors. New Jersey State Elks Association Special Children’s Committee hosted their annual Ambassador Meet & Greet on Oct. 20 at Woodbridge Lodge #2116.
“It’s very rewarding for the Elks to come to events like this and to know that we’re doing something special to help the children out there,” said Teri Payton, New Jersey Elks State Chairperson for the Special Children’s Committee.
Each year, four ambassadors and four alternate ambassadors are chosen from around the state to represent the children and families the Elks help through service and charitable events. The 2019-2020 Elks’ Ambassadors and Alternate Ambassadors, along with their families and lodge chaperones, were invited the event to kick off a busy year of visiting lodges throughout the state for events and celebrations.
“The Meet & Greet is so that our dignitaries all over the state of New Jersey can come and meet the children and their families,” said Lisa Nazzaretto, Region 2 Co-Chairman to the Special Children’s Committee.
“We’ve invited not only our current state president, but all our past state presidents, all the dignitaries at the district level, the families and our whole committee,” said Payton. “We have representatives from every district throughout the state so that the parents know we’re here for them. We want their children to feel like they are special and cared about by the Elks.”
The Ambassador Program is one of the Elks’ major statewide projects for children with special needs. Each year, the ambassadors and alternates are selected by the Elks State Special Children’s Committee
“The children, families and lodge chaperones travel and put in many hours to help promote the charitable work done within the lodges, districts and the state,” said Nazzaretto. “Each child is sponsored by a lodge and has a chaperone that coordinates their scheduled appearances to all districts, lodge and state events.”
This year, Brianna Feeney has been selected as the Elks’ Area 4 Alternate Ambassador. Her chaperones, Suzanne Purcell and James Buckelew, are members of the South Plainfield Elks Special Children’s Committee.
“We work to help children with special needs and their families in any way we can,” said Purcell. “We understand that families with children who have disabilities need support and we want them to know they are not alone.”
“The Elks have done so much for our family and countless other families who have a child or children with disabilities,” said Patricia Feeney, Brianna’s mother. “They step in when there is a need without asking for credit or accolades. They just truly want to help.”
Brianna was born with Pallister Killian Syndrome (PKS), a rare genetic disorder that is considered a “fluke” by doctors. Only about 300 people have been diagnosed with PKS in the world. Because of her disorder, Brianna has severe hypotonia, so she is unable to walk. She is nonverbal and has Cortical Visual Impairment, which effects the vision center of her brain, making it difficult to interpret images.
“The last ten years of our lives have been a roller coaster,” said Feeney. “But Brianna works so hard. She is learning to use a gait trainer so she can take steps with support. She is learning sign language so she can communicate. Brianna is a wonderful, happy child, and I am so blessed to have the support of the Elks because it is not easy. Families of children with special needs truly need the help of the community.”
The gathering opened as the Elks welcomed everyone to the meet & greet.
“We are truly humbled to have this event here today,” said Malcolm J. McPherson Jr., Past Grand Exalted Ruler. “Our ambassadors, dignitaries, families members, this is truly a special day. On behalf of our special children here and all of you, whether you are a parent, a grandparent, family member or anyone involved with special children, that makes you a special person yourself. God bless all of you and thank you.”
Several members of the Special Children’s Committee had the opportunity to speak.
“The real dignitaries are our Ambassadors and Alternate Ambassadors,” said Elks State President Anthony Alfonso. “I want to thank the families for sharing your children with us. I urge you, as a family, to attend as may events as you are invited to. You have a long year ahead with the ambassadors. For the chaperones, thank you for dedicating your time and going to the events with the children this upcoming year. God bless the committee and everyone here.”
“With all of your help, the association can continue to support it’s state major project that provides a truly unforgettable experience for our special children and adults,” said Nazzaretto. “On behalf of the New Jersey State Elks Association, we thank each family for joining us and allowing your child to represent the Special Children’s Committee as our 2019-20 Ambassador and Alternate.”
The children and families were called to the front of the room, one by one, to receive their official 2019-20 ambassador badge with their name on them, along with a gift. The badges are to be worn when they visit each lodge to represent the Elks state association throughout the coming year for special events.
Those interested in becoming a part of the ambassador program have the opportunity to apply once a year and are chosen through the New Jersey Elk’s State Special Children’s Committee.
“We get applications, but it’s not a judging contest,” said Nazzaretto. “I think the Ambassador Program is fantastic and I do wish that more children and families would take advantage of it.”
The Elks are known for their service to communities throughout the country. From their work with veterans to their scholarships for trade schools and colleges, the Elks focus on ways to help.
“Elks are only in America and each state has their own state major project,” said Payton.
“New Jersey Elks focus on special needs children and we run a camp, called Camp Moore, for special needs kids up in Haskell, NJ, for eight weeks during the summer.”
Elks Camp Moore is a sleep away camp for children with disabilities of all kinds ages seven through twenty-one. Children with disabilities ages seven through twenty-one years old can go away to camp for a week fully paid for by the lodges that sponsor the child.
“The kids gain confidence, they have fun together, they go in a specially adapted pool, they have arts and crafts, music and dancing,” added Payton. “They just have a great time for a week and the parents get a week of being able to catch up on other things knowing that their children are safe and having the time of their lives.”
Camp counselors travel from as far away as Europe to spend their summer with the children. Each week brings a new group of campers. Many counselors are in college studying to work with those who have disabilities or are special needs’ teachers.
“I love that my child can participate in the normal experience of going away to camp,” said Feeney. “Brianna’s counselor never leaves her side and they have a week packed with activities. All of the counselors are so devoted to the children. Brianna has had the same counselor for years, an amazing young woman who gives Brianna her full attention for six days straight. When I go to pick her up on the last day, there are always tears, mostly from the counselor and from me. Camp Moore is such a beautiful experience for all of us!”
The Elks Challenger Sports Program is another program that the Elks have created to help special needs children.
“At the state level, we have a Challenger Sports Program, where we have a competition,” said Payton. “We have district champions and state champions. The children feel so good about themselves. When they get a medal after participating, the smiles on their faces are precious.”
The New Jersey Elks also give away four scholarships a year, two $10,000 scholarships and two $4,000 scholarships, for young adults with special needs.
“The scholarships are given to those that we feel we can help to achieve their goals and we’ve had some really great contestants for it,” said Payton. “We’ve had kids that are artistic kids who in high school and became very interesting in computer applications to help other special needs kids.”
Elks officials say the recipients of the scholarships are bringing much good to the world.
“We had one child who wanted to grow up and be an advocate for special needs children because he felt when he was in grammar school, the children got put in a classroom and weren’t really involved with the school,” said Payton. “He was able to succeed and has become an advocate. One goal of his is to own a food truck, so he’s going to a culinary school.”
The Ambassadors and Alternate Ambassadors have a long year ahead of visiting lodges and making appearances at events. The smiles they will bring and the joy and love they will receive is priceless.
“No matter how big the smiles are that the children have,” said Payton. “They put smiles on our faces. We’re the ones that gain from doing this.”
“I’m excited for the coming year,” said Purcell. “I’ve known Brianna and her family for nearly five years now and the Elks have watched her grow stronger each year. To be a part of her life is truly a gift and I feel so good being with her as a chaperone this year.”
“The Elks have become family for us,” said Feeney. “When life was its most challenging, the Elks were there, and they have never left our side.”