PALM HARBOR — When it comes to community institutions, Moose International is right up there with the Elks, the American Legion, the Rotary Club and the VFW in terms of longevity.
But according to local lodge officers, the Loyal Order of Moose, as the fraternal and service organization is known in the U.S., Canada and Bermuda, lags similar ones when it comes to name recognition, popularity and public understanding of what it is all about.
“We’re kind of low-key,” Palm Harbor Lodge No. 433 treasurer Matt Prahasky said recently from the facility, at 3211 Alt 19. “We don’t like to blow our own horn.”
“Everyone thinks Moose is a bunch of guys sitting around smoking cigarettes and drinking beer,” administrator Richard Jarvis added. “But we’re about so much more than that.”
Founded by Henry Wilson in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1888, the original purpose of Moose International was “to serve a modest goal of offering men an opportunity to gather socially, to care for one another’s needs and celebrate life together,” according to the organization’s website.
During an open house on Oct. 20, Jarvis, Prahasky and Dennis Sabo, the lodge’s junior governor, explained how Moose International has changed with the times yet remains committed to its core values.
“Moose International supports children and seniors through two branches — Mooseheart and Moosehaven,” Sabo said, noting Mooseheart is a children’s school with a 1,000-acre campus near Chicago and Moosehaven is a 70-acre retirement community in Jacksonville.
“We collect food for the needy, support local schools, sponsor young men and women,” Prahasky added. “Everything we raise goes back into the community. We’re not big, but we do a lot.”
The men noted the organization is now all-inclusive and does not require a military background or restrictive criteria to join.
Although membership in the Moose was originally restricted to “white men of sound mind and body,” that is no longer the case, according to Prahasky.
“We’re not prejudicial,” he said. “It doesn’t matter your gender, race or religion We have just two requirements — no serious felonies, and you must believe in a supreme spirit.”
Sabo added: “We have a good mix of young and old members, and women have their own chapter within our chapter. All anyone who wants to join has to do is fill out an application, get a member to sponsor them and the dues are $50 a year, $30 for women. It’s very easy.”
The open house, held on a sweltering Saturday afternoon, was part of a Moose International initiative to add new members.
“The idea behind this event was a directive from Moose International during the month of October in honor of Mooseheart founder Jim Davis to open the lodges up to the community and let them know what we’re about and hopefully gain new members,” Sabo said. “Our goal is to get 500 members. We’re one of the smaller lodges around. But we’re very community and family oriented.”
For Palm Harbor lodge officers, the push for new members is bolstered by plans to build a new elevated, multi-purpose facility on the property.
“What we’re going to do is build a new building right behind this one, tear this one down and put a parking lot where the current building is,” Prahasky said, adding the target date for the groundbreaking ceremony is late December. “It’s going to be so nice for our members and allow us to do so many different things for the community.”
As the men were conducting a tour of the property, a Palm Harbor Fire Rescue engine skillfully pulled down the narrow side street; the Station 68 crew was there to pick up a few cases of Tommy Moose stuffed animals. Moose International has program that provides the plush toys to emergency workers to present to children they encounter in traumatic situations such as fires and medical emergencies.
“Often with a child, you have to get their minds off what happened,” Larry Beers of Palm Harbor Fire Rescue said. “A toy or a stuffed animal, it comforts them. I think it’s a very good idea.”
Sabo said the Tommy Moose program epitomizes what Moose International is all about.
“We do a lot for the community, but most of it goes unnoticed,” he said. “But if there’s a giving place in your heart, this is the place to share it.”