Chartered in 1922 on Virginia's eastern shore, Post 56 in Cheriton, Va., was a regular meeting place for World War II and Korean War veterans until the late 1950s, when a fire destroyed the facility. Members of the post were forced to meet wherever they could, including private homes and church halls. Membership dwindled. Even after the post purchased a building in nearby Cape Charles that once housed a car dealership, membership and community involvement continued to decline.
Membership dropped to a low of 22 in the mid-2000s but slowly began to rebound, rising to 76 in 2007. That's when a few of the members saw an opening to turn things around.
With more than $300,000 in the bank after selling the former car dealership property, the post started looking for a new home and eventually found its current location: a vacant grocery store in rural Cheriton. Once work began to remodel the store into a bricks-and-mortar post home, more and more local veterans became interested.
"I always said that if we had a building that was our own, a place for veterans to go to and call their own, that we'd be successful," says Post 56 member Jim Chapman, who has served as post commander and adjutant, and is currently the Department of Virginia's deputy judge advocate. "But that building needed work when we got it, and everyone pitched in to make it what it is today."
Since then, and because of everyone pitchng in, membership has boomed – up more than 200 percent, to 243. With that growth and the new post home, The American Legion's presence in the area has become more visible, and every new member feels a sense of ownership of the refurbished building.
The grocery store had left behind more than two tons of food, which the post donated to a VA food bank. Chapman obtained the proper construction permits, after which his sons – both contractors – helped transform the building, donating hundreds of hours of labor.
Other post members helped get the post up and running, but they had to convince the community that the operation was not simply going to be a bar. Together, Chapman and Past Post Commander Walter Dellenback educated local residents on what The American Legion is and does. The Cheriton Town Council, after learning more about the Legion, approved the project.
"We were not going to let this turn into a bar," Chapman says. "You've got to have the socialization side of things, but you also have to fill a need within the community. We have people here interested in children and youth activities. We have people interested in dealing with veterans issues. We have people interested in all sorts of things. You find people and interests that match, and you'll be successful. We had to make that clear and then follow up on it."
Marine Gen. James Mattis – then serving as U.S. Joint Forces/NATO Supreme Allied Commander-Transformation – attended the grand opening ceremony in November 2007, which included hundreds of community members and a Boy Scout color guard, along with current and former national and department Legion officers.
That was just the beginning. Since then, Post 56's membership has continued to grow, hitting 100 percent of this year's goal in December. Post 56 Legionnaires have been recent recipients of the department's Post Commander and Legionnaire of the Year awards.
An Auxiliary unit and Sons of The American Legion squadron were established and are thriving, with more than 100 members combined. The post sponsors a Boy Scout troop, sends five participants and two staff members to Boys State each year, sends more youths to the Department of Virginia Junior Law Cadet program, conducts an Oratorical Contest and hosts two annual blood drives. Community service hours logged by Post 56 members topped 14,000 in 2012.
"The fact is, this has been a gathering place for the community seven days a week," Post 56 member Joe Vaccaro says. "We've got kids who come in here for events and to eat hot dogs. We have other groups who come here to meet. It's a very family-oriented post. Because the community was so involved when we were building this, they really feel invested in what we have here."
It's a diverse membership where cliques are not allowed. "You never know who you might have sitting next to you," Vaccaro says. "There might be a farmer on one side of you, and a dean from a school at Boston University might be on the other side. There's no rank here."
But there is a clear-cut leadership model. No one can serve more than two years as post commander, and that person is responsible for finding the next commander and mentoring him or her before handing over the reins. It's the same with every post officer. "That way you're always having new people moving into leadership roles," Chapman says. "You need to pass on what you know to the next person."
Ive Chubb, post adjutant, uses Post 56's Facebook page to spread the word about its events and activities. "Our Facebook audience is growing, so we're trying to use it more," Chubb says. "I also use the local newspaper and radio station. People love to see all the stuff we're doing."
Meanwhile, Chapman travels across the department, talking about what the post has accomplished, giving credit to the entire membership. As member Ralph Orzo explains, it takes a bit of an epiphany for a post to make this kind of transformation.
"Once a post realizes that it is responsible for providing an image of The American Legion within the community, it changes the way that post does things," Orzo says. "It changes the way you think."