Faith, hope and charity

Women of the Moose prove organization isn't just a 'good old boys club'

Fairfield Daily Republic ©

FAIRFIELD - Bursts of laughter alternating between myriad puffs of smoke fill the hot evening air outside the Fairfield Moose Lodge, evoking a sense of familiarity for these men and women.

Large seashell ashtrays, most of them loaded with ashes and butts, dapple the corners of six benches outside the building.

Meanwhile, a gathering of Moose members and conversation ensues.

It's Tuesday night and more than 25 women, also known as Women of the Moose, assemble for their biweekly meeting. They are known as Fairfield Chapter No. 1379 to at least 400 Moose members, and tonight one more person will be added to their list via a Moose ritual.

"When we bring in a member, the ritual team explains what Women of the Moose is about. That is, faith, hope and charity," says 39-year-old Niki Taylor, a junior graduate regent and ritual team participant.

Inside the lodge, which can only be entered by invitation, is the Social Quarter, a bar-like room complete with pool table, television, bar stools and, of course, a bar - open seven days a week. But keep in mind, the Moose lodge is not about drinking.

"That's what a lot of people think, but we're so much more than that," the six-year member says in defense.

And as if exposing the gates to a clandestine location, revealing the unknown behind the secluded quarters, she slides open the wooden double doors and brings to light a large room filled with Moose banners, Moose pictures and a large moose head behind a podium. Both men and women, ranging in ages 21 to senior, sit strategically in folding metal chairs that form a perfect square around the room.

"In the name of the Women of the Moose, I declare Fairfield Chapter duly open," says senior regent member Carol Afholderbach at the podium, garbed uncomfortably in a long and colorful cotton dress.

The doors slowly close and the meeting begins.

The women

"We are a family fraternity, not just the good old boys club that have family activities," says ritual director Carol Allen of the women's organization.

The Women of the Moose, a unit of Moose International Inc., was established in 1913 as a way to provide social, sports, family and community service opportunities in a fraternal setting.

But their two main objectives, explains Allen, are Mooseheart and Moosehaven.

"Mooseheart was established to take care of children in need," says Allen, who has been a Moose member since 1993. "We totally support children from infancy to high school and if they have a "b" average or better they get a four-year college scholarship."

Mooseheart, located in the Fox River Valley, west of Chicago, is a 1,200-acre campus where children in need are housed, educated and cared for by professionally trained family teachers. It was established by James J. Davis in 1913, who saw a need for children whose parents could no longer care for them.

"It started for children of Moose members only. Now it's any child who is in need, their parents don't have to be members," Allen adds of the program.

At the other end of the spectrum is Moosehaven, where the Moose Fraternity provides for the care and needs of senior members.

"Members have to be at least 65 years old and in good standing for 15 years with the fraternity," Allen says of the haven, located in Orange Park, Fla. "All expenses are paid for while you're there. You just have to turn over all your assets, but then you have no expenses, like health or food bills."

But these women also contribute to the community, such as to Heather House, Mission Solano, American Heart Foundation and Shriner's Hospital.

In the past year alone, the Fairfield Chapter has volunteered 1,308 hours in the community and has donated $15,650 to various organizations.

"It's nice to know you're helping someone that needs the help," Allen adds matter-of-factly.

The ritual

To an outsider, the ritual process might appear odd, with six identically dressed women performing simultaneous moves and uttering virtues by which to live.

"Before I became a member, I was sitting in the room and thought, 'What the hell is going on? Is this some kind of cult?' " says Taylor of her first ritual experience. "They all came out in these stiff positions, square at the corners - it was really weird for me."

Yet when Taylor, who feels she "drives the women nuts" with her eccentric behavior at the lodge, paid a visit to Mooseheart, everything she imagined about the nonprofit organization changed.

"You don't have a conversation with the kids without them thanking you," she confesses. "It melts your heart."

Soon after, Allen asked her to join the ritual team and immediately Taylor accepted.

"It's so beautiful and special to me because now I know what it's about," she says.

The enrollment ceremony tells the story of the Moose, Mooseheart and Moosehaven and represents the three principles of the Women of the Moose.

And one-by-one, the six women line up in perfect file, walk around the square room flawlessly and give much care to the four sharp corners. Three ritual members stop, turn and sit behind a station, while the remaining three members walk to the podium and sit.

"We start with a bare branch, which signifies our faith in that it will grow and nourish," Allen says of the team, which competes nationally each year against other ritual teams. "The next branch is a rosebud which represents hope, and that's carried by Niki. And the last branch is a rose in full bloom, which we consider charity."

The end of the meeting approaches, and Afholderbach is back at the podium.

"I declare . . . oh, I already said that," she says with some embarrassment then turns to her right. "What's next?"

"We collected $130 for Mary's (Hagens) 'Oh, So Good Cake' at the silent auction," says one member to the group.

"I think its new name should be 'Oh, So Rich Cake'," adds another.

Meeting adjourned.

Bingo night

Another way the women collect money for the community is through bingo, held every Wednesday night inside the Fairfield lodge and is open to the public.

Inside is Taylor, who is working on earning a cap and gown from the Women of the Moose, another level of degree for Moose members - all she needs to do is attend 12 meetings and recruit four members in a year for a full-blown graduation ceremony in 2007. She walks around the room with a large Bazooka Joe bucket and distributes cash and cards. Two dollars will buy four bingo cards.

"It's the same people every week," says Taylor, also known as the bingo queen. "If someone doesn't show up I think something happened to them."

Meanwhile, Afholderbach sits behind a table and takes a few food orders. Jeans and a T-shirt make up Afholderbach's attire tonight.

"I only wear a dress once a month or unless I have to," the 25-year member says with a smirk. Her mother, Lola Simmons, sits at another table with fellow Moose members.

"When my parents joined the Moose lodge, me, my sister and brother would go with them, so it was just natural that we joined," she says, who frequents the place at least five times a week. "We all live in the same town anyway."

At the back of the room is Robert Taylor, a member of the Moose lodge since 1972.

"Ten games will cost you $5, then you can buy other cards," he says, who can't quite recall how many years he's been running the bingo game. "They just call me Bingo Man."

To the right of him is Renate Allen, a German-born woman donning large framed spectacles with small diamond stars pasted on the glass. And she refuses to give her age.

"No one can guess my age," she says with a slight accent. "You know there are so many guys after me but I don't give a damn. But yes, I get along with the women here."

Allen joined about 20 years ago, although she's been frequenting the bingo hall for 31 years. And, she says, the changes are incredible.

"There have been four bingo chairmen, two have died, one left and now there's Robert, and I've worked for all of them," she says quite proudly.

"It was at least 18 years ago we had to get the OK from the police that women could work here," she adds. "I don't know why, I guess it was their law to not have women help because it was a man's game."

But there's also another change Allen noticed to the game. Participation has dropped dramatically in the last 10 years, which Allen attributes to the new bingo hall on North Texas Street.

Hopefully, she says, their "little" bingo hall will remain open.

"When I first started going, I used to squeeze in between seats just to play a game. Now they have the large bingo hall. Why go to the big bingos when you don't have a chance to win? It's no fun," she asks.

"At least over here, you're out with friends and you win a little money," Allen continues. "It seems people are after a lot of money. I just want to live and have fun."