Hands that help: The service clubs that charm our neighborhood

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Lake Highlands has always felt like a small town tucked into a big city. Even with its pockets of blight, our tightknit sense of community is what keeps many families roosting here. The fact that we always run into a familiar face at the grocery store is due, at least in part, to our neighborhood service clubs. They may require an application to join, but these groups regularly find ways to make our neighborhood better, whether it’s providing scholarships for Lake Highlands High seniors, beautifying a common space, hosting community events or promoting local businesses. Some clubs are part of a national campaign while others stem from homegrown efforts, but all chip in to make our neighborhood more desirable and connected. Here, you can read a bit more about who they are, what they do and how to get involved.

Butterfly on orange flower
Dallas County Master Gardeners flowers (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

Growing gardens

Stepping into the farm at Moss Haven Elementary shows exactly what the Dallas County Master Gardeners do for the community. Children tend to chickens, collect eggs and coo over their feathered friends. The students manage 22 raised flower beds, some of which are filled with food like leafy vegetables and herbs, others brimming over with colorful blooms. They collect rainwater to keep the area lush. This kind of outdoor education would not be possible without the assistance of some green-thumbed gardeners.

“The focus of this school garden is to educate young children about the cycle of food production from farm to table,” says Cynthia Jones, president of the Master Gardeners.

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All members must give back in service or education. The group provides horticultural information about everything from how to keep your lawn green and manage pests, to how to raise vegetables in the back yard. They host demonstration classes, and have developed teaching gardens all over Dallas. They even have a helpdesk neighbors can call weekdays from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. to ask gardening questions (214.904.3053).

Year established: 1986
Number of members: Over 400
Main purpose: To educate the public and provide research-based horticultural information and projects throughout the county.
Annual events: There is a portable help desk at the Texas State Fair for the entire length of the fair. They also host garden-related children’s activities at
the Home and Garden Show in the fall and spring.
How to join: Attend Master Gardener School, which begins in January. Applications may be downloaded by visiting the website.
Biggest non-cash need: Much of the funding comes from the Dallas County Master Gardener Association (DCMGA), the nonprofit funding arm of the organization. Attending garden tours and plant sales also helps contribute.
More info: dallascountymastergardeners.org

Exchange Club 

“Nationally, the club is about Americanism,” says Lake Highlands Exchange Club president Patrick Brown.

Formed in Detroit in 1911, the club’s purpose was to exchange ideas and build community involvement. It took off like wildfire, spreading across the nation in a time when service clubs were a major social outlet for communities. When it came to Lake Highlands in 1961, it found just the right area to thrive.

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“Out of all the club’s in the country, we’re either the fourth or fifth largest membership,” Brown says.

The club provides service in a variety of ways, including working with every school in the Lake Highlands High feeder pattern, and regular grants to support community projects like the all-abilities playground at Flag Pole Hill. Every year, they provide graduating seniors with scholarships to further their education.

To fund those efforts, the club hosts the city’s largest Oktoberfest celebration each September, drawing more than 8,000 for a day of beer, music and German culture. They also celebrate neighborhood contributions with the spring Wildcatter Ball and Auction and quarterly awards to honor local students and first responders.

Year established: 1961
Number of members: 160
Main purpose: To encourage community service and involvement in members.
Annual events:  Oktoberfest, set for Sept. 30 at Flag Pole Hill. Wildcatter Ball and Auction, set for March at Gilley’s.
How to join: Fill out a membership application online. The monthly dues are $60 to cover the cost of weekly breakfast meetings.
Biggest non-cash need: Increasing the club’s membership and business sponsorships for Oktoberfest.
More info: lhexchangeclub.org

Bingo card being filled out (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)
Bingo is so popular at the Elks Lodge, it is offered twice weekly on Mondays and Thursdays. (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

Dallas Elks

The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks was born out of a group of drinking buddies in the 1860s in New York City. Looking for an appropriate name, some founding member came across a description of an elk in a natural history book, which read: “fleet of foot, timorous of doing wrong, but ever ready to combat in defense of self or of the female of the species.”

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It fit the group.

Lake Highlands’ Lodge #71 on Lullwater Drive has long been about having fun. That includes maintaining recreational facilities for a community such as the Elks pool with its $5 admission, social activities like twice-weekly bingo at its clubhouse, and an RV park for visitors.

But beyond providing a place to have fun, the club also gives back by hosting summer camps for special needs children, visiting veterans and feeding the homeless. The national Order of Elks maintains a disaster relief fund, which recently aided Hurricane Harvey victims.

Year established: 1888 for Lodge #71
Number of members: 362
Main purpose: To enhance community with social and recreational offerings along with philanthropy.
Annual events: The fundraising Polar Bear Dip in January. On Oct. 7 from 8 a.m.-2 p.m., the Elks host an indoor garage sale to benefit its special needs summer camps.
How to join: Find a sponsor member along with two member references, and fill out an application online.
Biggest non-cash need: New members and attendees at the Elks pool and other events.
More info: dallaselks.org

The charter members of the Lake Highlands Women's League. (Photo courtesy of the league)
The charter members of the Lake Highlands Women’s League. (Photo courtesy of the league)

Women’s League

The space race was on and the neighborhood was a burgeoning bedroom community when the Lake Highlands Women’s League got its legs in 1969.

“It was just a group of women who wanted to do something to help the community,” says Susan Solomon, a former president of the service club who remains an active member.

That very first year, the club created its signature event: The Holiday Home Tour. Set the first Friday in December, the event offers a festive peek inside some of the neighborhood’s most interesting homes.

To date, it has raised more than $2,575,000 for Lake Highlands, most of which was spent assisting students with scholarships. But in a recent push to be more community focused, the Women’s League plans to spend more funds on a wider range of causes such as outfitting local teachers with supplies and financing programs for area nonprofits.

The club also provides more than 2,500 volunteer hours annually, often assisting other service groups, like lending a hand at the Exchange Club’s Oktoberfest. It is about service first, something they make sure new members know immediately.

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“We try to talk everyone out of being a member,” Solomon laughs, referencing the heavy volunteer load compared to some clubs. “We’re not just a bunch of housewives; we really get our hands dirty.”
Year established: 1969
Number of members: 100 active, 200 sustaining
Main purpose: To provide volunteers and scholarship funds to support the Lake Highlands community.
Annual events: Holiday Home Tour, set for Dec. 1.
How to join: New members must be sponsored by an active member, but there is a yearlong waitlist. All active members are required to volunteer four times a year, as well as help with the home tour.
Biggest non-cash need: Business sponsorships for the Holiday Home Tour.
More info: lhwl.org

Junior Women’s League

When the Women’s League got so packed with members it became a bit unwieldy, the Lake Highlands Junior Women’s League was established for women under age 40 to get active in their community. It doubles as a way to meet neighbors outside the block.

“What drew me in was getting connected with girls outside my own neighborhood and the elementary feeder pattern we are in,” says Bryn Volkmer, president of the Junior Women’s League. “Junior Women’s League gave me purpose as an adult and a way to serve my community.”

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To date, they have raised nearly half-a-million dollars, all for neighborhood improvement and enjoyment. They funded the sprayground and play area at the Lake Highlands North Recreation Center and built a children’s area at Audelia Road Library, among other projects. They are working with the Exchange Club and the Women’s League to help fund an all-abilities playground at Flag Pole Hill.

“Everyone’s been pulled in to make that happen,” Volkmer says of the group effort.

Year established: 2004
Number of members: 125 active members
Main purpose: To instill a sense of community in young women.
Annual events: Light Up Lake Highlands kicks off the holiday season on Nov. 26. April’s annual Run the Highlands 5k and carnival is the group’s signature event.
How to join: Click the “join” button on the website, but the waitlist is about a year. Members must live within the high school boundaries.
Biggest non-cash need: Business sponsors for events and attendees at Run the Highlands.
More info: lhjwl.com

Chamber of Commerce

Lake Highlands has one of the tougher business climates in Dallas, since it lacks a “destination” like Lower Greenville or Bishop Arts that draws people from around the city. But that could change with the opening of the Town Center and Alamo Drafthouse along with the rehabilitation at The Hill and Northview Plaza shopping centers. And the chamber plans to be part of that change.

“One of our goals is to make Lake Highlands an entertainment district,” says Ted Hill, president of the Lake Highlands Chamber.

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The chamber’s first major endeavor was “#WELoveLH” in February, an awards banquet to honor the people and businesses who make our neighborhood desirable. In April, they planned the Lake Highlands Restaurant Week. It was so successful, the chamber is organizing Lake Highlands Retail Week during the height of the holiday shopping season from Nov. 25-Dec. 2.

Outside of promotions, the chamber is also committed to helping improve the culture for businesses. In 2016, they hit the pavement to survey more than 50 businesses about panhandlers, loitering, crime and open drug use.

“A resounding everyone said, ‘Yes, this has been a problem for us,’ ” Hill says. “How are we going to build a business community with all that going on?”

The chamber took their survey results to Dallas Police and city officials to establish a Criminal Trespassing Affidavit program, which allows police to cite an offender on the first violation, and take them to jail on the second.

Year established: Nonprofit status achieved in 2015
Number of members: 150 businesses
Main purpose: To build a vibrant business community.
Annual events: #WeLoveLH Awards (February), Lake Highlands Restaurant Week (April), Lake Highlands Retail Week (November). The chamber also hosts monthly business forums and annual business surveys.
How to join: Membership is offered for a business ($150-$3,000) or individual ($30).
Biggest non-cash need: The all-volunteer board is always looking for active members.
More info: lhchamber.com

Greater East Dallas Chamber of Commerce 

Jesse Simmons knows the power of the Greater East Dallas Chamber of Commerce, and not just as a board member. He runs his own air conditioning, heating and appliance repair company, and remembers walking out of his first chamber meeting with three service calls when there was only 12 people at the meeting.

When he first started his business, he used to serve the entire metroplex. “I’d go anywhere for a dollar,” he says. But the GEDCC allowed him to reduce his service area by connecting him with customers closer to home. “For the first four years I was involved, my business doubled every year. Everything I need is right here, and I keep it local. I haven’t been to Plano in four years.”

Year established: 1948
Number of members: 167 member businesses
Main purpose: To promote the cultural, educational and industrial interests of Greater East Dallas.
Annual events: The chamber presents an annual Economic Summit in Oct. 19.
How to join: One-year memberships range from $75-$2,500.
Biggest non-cash need: For businesses to join its membership and attend regular networking events.
More info: eastdallaschamber.com

Caren Bright with donations for Pamper Lake Highlands (Photo by Jennifer Shertzer)
Caren Bright with donations for Pamper Lake Highlands, a beneficiary of 100 Women. (Photo by Jennifer Shertzer)

100 Women

Alone, any one person can only give so much. But by combining efforts, a group of women can make a big financial impact. That is the concept behind 100 Women of Lake Highlands, where each member commits to give $100 to a charity voted on by the group, creating an impact grant. During each of their three annual meetings, three charities are invited to present their programs before each member is handed a ballot to vote for the cause she finds most worthy.

“At each general meeting we ask the past beneficiary to come back and update the group as to how their project is going and the impact it is making,” says Crispin Deneault, president of the volunteer group. “There is never a dry eye in the house after these presentations and in fact, our members consistently suggest we provide tissues at our meetings.”

To date, the group has given more than $175,000 to charities including Pamper Lake Highlands, Forerunner Mentoring and neighborhood schools.

But beyond giving money, the club has expanded to include more philanthropic projects, organized by members. Beginning Nov. 2, they are hosting a week-long campaign to collect backpacks filled with nutritious food to give to Skyview Elementary students for Thanksgiving. Since each will cost about $45, they are seeking business sponsors and member support for the effort.

Year established: 2016
Number of members: 336
Main purpose: To pool funds and provide impact grants to deserving nonprofits.
Annual events: Members vote how to spend funds during three annual meetings in February, April and September.
How to join: Fill out an application and commit to contributing $100.
Biggest non-cash need: Business sponsors to support meetings, and new members to continue growing the giving.
More info: facebook.com/100womenoflakehighlands

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