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When the Illinois River began cresting a few weeks ago, rising waters forced the evacuation of dozens of homes along the river in the city of Marseilles, Ill. It also caused American Legion Post 235 to spring into action.
The Illinois River crested near 30 feet, its highest level ever; flood stage is 20 feet. Several Illinois counties were classified as disaster areas. Following the April 18 flooding in Marseilles, Post 235 set up as a central location for food items to be donated. Post members, Salvation Army officials and community volunteers spent hours putting together bag lunches to take directly to flood victims who had begun the process of rebuilding their lives.
The post also started serving three hot meals a day to flood victims, police, fire and other emergency personnel, and any other volunteers who came to Marseilles to lend a hand. And it did so without hesitation, 60-year Post 235 member Gene Thompson said.
"We'd never had anything like this happen in this town before," said Thompson, a past department commander and National Executive Committeeman who now serves as Post 235 adjutant. "We probably made a lot of mistakes when this first started. But we had to do this."
Legion family members and other volunteers helped assemble sack lunches consisting of sandwiches, chips, fruit, cookies and water and then delivered them house to house throughout the community. Nearly 1,000 lunches a day were handed out.
"It was unbelievable the amount of people (affected by the flood)," said Post 235 member Jim Mooneyham, who spent 15 hours a day for six days at the post after the flood hit. "They don't want to take time out to come up here to eat. This way they can just have a quick sandwich. They're so happy just to get a sandwich, a bag of chips, water, an apple or a banana, and some cookies.
"They're grateful. They're so grateful. A lot of these people, they don't have two nickels to rub together, and they've just lost everything."
The post also started serving hot meals: breakfast from 7-10 a.m. or so, lunch starting at 11 a.m. and going until 1 p.m., and then dinner from 5-7 p.m. Approximately 60-80 meals a day were served, consisting of items the post cooked itself and food donated from restaurants such as Jimmy John's, Papa John's and local restaurants. Companies such as Wal-Mart and Home Depot also made food, material and financial donations.
The food delivery lasted for more than a week, while the hot meals continued a few days longer.
Marian Thompson, Gene's wife and a past president of 235's Auxiliary unit, helped out in a kitchen full of volunteers that there barely was room to move. "We've been so lucky in that so many people have volunteered to help," said Marian, naming several area businesses who stepped up with either financial or food donations. "We've had a lot of volunteers from other towns. The phone keeps ringing: ‘What can we do? How can we help?'"
Gene also was quick to point out the efforts of others. Volunteers from Marseilles and the surrounding communities showed up at the post to pitch in with the effort. "We had to turn help away," he said. "You hate to do that, but you can only get so many people in the kitchen."
Rockie Mann, who has lived in Marseilles all his life, was helping a daughter whose house had 3 feet of water inside. He took a break to eat lunch at Post 235.
"It's great to be able to get a hot meal like this," Mann said. "It's always been a close-knit community, and when something like this happens and you see how people respond, that just shows how close."
Mike Buivis of Bolingbrook, Ill., was also helping out family. His son's house had nearly 3 feet of water in the basement. Buivis, a member of the Army National Guard who has done three tours in Iraq, also appreciated being able to get some lunch in between moving furniture and other items out of his son's house.
"It was a really good meal, and I was able to get some to-go meals to take back to my friends who still are working at the house," Buivis said. "It's nice to be able to take a break like this."
Department of Illinois Adjutant Terry Woodburn was at Post 235 April 25, helping serve meals and also collecting information for potential National Emergency Fund (NEF) grants; Past National Commander Marty Conatser also was visiting other areas hit by the flooding to share information about NEF.
Woodburn, who has been employed by the Legion either at the department or national level for 34 years, wasn't a bit surprised by Post 235's efforts. "This is what the Legion does," he said. "When any assistance is needed in the community, if it's not the local post stepping up, it's posts around the area coming to the community's assistance. That's just what the Legion does."
Mooneyham agreed. "That's what we do: We help people," he said. "We help veterans and then anybody else that needs it. Let's just step up and do what we can. This is the least we can do."