The moment the men in blue caps step onto the playground at Escuela Legión Americana, the children go wild.
They come from every direction, wide-eyed and grinning, motioning for the veterans to sign their notebooks, scraps of paper they've pulled from the trash, even their arms. Never having been asked for autographs, members of Mexico City's Alan Seeger Post 2 happily oblige, surprised to be held in such high esteem.
"I think I've started something," says Dave Pedersen, Post 2's adjutant, laughing. As he signs one girl's notepad with an orange highlighter, another waits patiently, holding out a pencil and paper.
Here in the mountains south of the city, in the farming community of Magdalena Petlacalco, villagers young and old know they have a school because of The American Legion, and they're grateful for it. Visitors from the post get VIP treatment.
In 1957, a benefactor and friend of the Legion donated land for an elementary school, and Post 2's World War II veterans took out loans to build a six-room structure. After construction, they turned over Escuela Legión Americana - the School of The American Legion - to Mexico's Secretariat of Public Education to administer and staff with teachers. But the post remains a key patron of the school, thought to be the only one built by Legionnaires in a foreign country and bearing the Legion's name.
Every year, Pedersen and his buddies present awards to Escuela Legión Americana's finest students. They search high and low for donations of desks, paper, pencils, pens and other supplies. They've put on a jazz concert to buy the school five computers, and plan to buy 20 more. They're even trying to arrange English instruction there.
"Some of our members are getting up in age, and because of that, our support isn't as intense as it used to be," Pedersen says. "We used to visit every month. But we've never forgotten the school. We're proud of it."
Named for an American poet who spent his youth in Mexico before fighting with France in World War I, Alan Seeger Post 2 is the second American Legion post established in a foreign capital. In recent years, its active membership has dwindled, but these veterans - joined by the post's Auxiliary unit and a few well-connected friends in the community - are known for their generosity to some of Mexico City's most needy children: the poor, the blind, the abandoned and abused. Others call it charity. Pedersen, though, says Post 2 is simply being a good neighbor.
"More Than Their Parents Had." Pedersen, a Vietnam War veteran, ended up in Mexico City the way a lot of Americans there do: business. After 22 years in the Air Force, he went to work for a company that sold products to paper manufacturers, often spending six months at a time south of the border. He eventually moved to Mexico, spent a couple of years doing consulting, then retired.
Until he read about Escuela Legión Americana in a local newspaper column, Pedersen didn't know Post 2 even existed. Already a member of the Legion, he jotted down the address, showed up and got involved.
As the Department of Mexico's service officer, Pedersen spends his days helping veterans and widows with their VA claims. But just as important to him is Post 2's charity work, which began a half-century ago with the building of the school.
Escuela Legión Americana succeeded so well that within 20 years it was overcrowded; some students were traveling 15 miles by bus to attend. The American community in Mexico mentioned the problem to the wife of then-President José López Portillo at a social event, and almost immediately a three-story annex went up behind the Legion's original building. Today, the school's enrollment is about 1,500.
"For many of these kids, this is the only education they'll get, and it's more than their parents had," Pedersen says, watching as dozens of students crowd around Tom Murphy, an Air Force veteran, and Thor Stromsted, a World War II naval aviator, eager to find out more about them.
The youngsters have Murphy's full attention. This is his first time visiting Escuela Legión Americana, and he's overjoyed at what his post has done for Magdalena Petlacalco by giving its children a place to learn and grow - and, quite likely, a brighter future.
"They're like a clean blackboard," Murphy says. "They're enthusiastic and they're curious, and you see it on all their faces."
As for Stromsted, a retired MIT engineer, he's eager to support the school by offering a water-purification system through his company, Aqua Bio Technologies.
Without a doubt, the community appreciates the Legion, Stromsted says. He recalls that a few years ago, a group of people wanted to change Escuela Legión Americana's name - to call it something that sounded more Mexican. Villagers refused.
"They're proud of that name," he says.
"Hardly a Dry Eye." Besides supporting Escuela Legión Americana, Post 2 sends money every month to two girls homes: Casa Rosa de la Torre, a school for the blind, and La Esperanza, a full-time shelter for the abused and abandoned.
Funds come from the sale of post merchandise, 50-50 raffles, Auxiliary bingo nights, and proceeds from dinners and other special events. Plus, Pedersen isn't shy about asking people to give.
"I don't care where you are in the world, children are children," Pedersen says. "They're just kids, and kids here are not well taken care of, especially the ones who have been abused. They need help."
Casa Rosa de la Torre opened in 1965 and has been managed by Mother Antonina, a nun, since 1995. The school houses 14 girls between ages 4 and 25, along with a 4-year-old boy. They come from poor families, boarding during the week and going home on weekends. Most receive elementary, junior-high and senior-high classes there, and a few have gone on to college.
Unfortunately, what the school gets from the Mexican government is a pittance, Pedersen says. For years, Post 2 has been sending Casa Rosa de la Torre a monthly stipend of $200 to help cover its water, electricity and property-tax bills. And every so often, the men in blue caps stop by to ask what the school needs, and maybe bring the girls a treat. "We give them whatever we can get our hands on," Pedersen says. "We got them a case of jam once, and they went crazy over it."
Andrew Zgolinski, an aviation adviser for the U.S. Embassy's Narcotics Affairs Section and Post 2's commander, says he and his fellow Legionnaires are only doing what the American GI has always done - in other words, they're still those guys handing out gum and candy to kids.
"Some of our members aren't as well off as others, but everybody sticks a hand in their pocket," Zgolinski says. "It's part of being an American and being a veteran."
Every December, Post 2's Legion family hosts a holiday breakfast for the blind girls, who put on a small concert. They sing and play instruments, many of which were donated by the Legion, before opening Christmas gifts. And every year, Pedersen says, "there's hardly a dry eye in the house."
This year, the star of the show is 13-year-old Julia, who has been at Casa Rosa de la Torre since she was 4. Before taking her place at the piano to perform "Love and Friendship," a song she wrote, Julia delights the crowd by speaking to them in English, which she's working hard to learn.
"We are grateful to The American Legion," she says. "We wouldn't have the life we have if we didn't receive this help."
For Jim and Haydeé Taylor, Post 2's charity work goes hand in hand with their own. He's a past post commander, she's a past president of Alan Seeger Auxiliary Unit 2, and their Fundación Casa de Santa Hipólita promotes education by providing scholarships for underprivileged Mexican children. With the couple's help, one of Casa Rosa de la Torre's girls recently earned a psychology degree.
"It's important for them to know somebody's thinking of them, to feel that somebody loves them," Haydeé says.
"Nothing But Smiles." The day after the breakfast, Pedersen and company head to La Esperanza. They call it "the orphanage," but because of physical or mental disabilities, many of the shelter's girls are considered unadoptable. They've been mistreated or abandoned altogether, and Pedersen calls their stories "horrific."
Founded over 50 years ago, La Esperanza is run by Sister Maria Duran. Like the blind-girls school, it regularly receives food and money from Post 2. Though sanctioned and licensed by the Mexican government, the shelter receives little assistance, and its six-floor building desperately needs plumbing and electrical repairs.
"We have some handy Legionnaires, but some of these problems are beyond our scope," Pedersen says. He'd like to hire and monitor outside help, and hopefully raise enough money to buy the facility a new washing machine. Right now, La Esperanza has just one washer for 41 girls.
As the Legionnaires walk into the shelter's courtyard, some of the girls grab the hands of Murphy and Mark Walker, a Vietnam War helicopter pilot and former Department of Mexico commander, wanting to show them their rooms and how fast they can jump rope. Brenda, a 5-year-old in a pink sweatshirt, jumps into Pedersen's arms. She usually does. "One time I was here and she nearly knocked me down," he says. "It was like she was running for a touchdown in the end zone."
Murphy's brought a couple of photo books he thinks the girls will enjoy - one on the world's natural wonders, the other about animals. They're a hit. One by one, the girls flip through their pages, pointing to the pictures and giggling.
"We see the joy in their eyes when we go out there and give them stuff," Walker says. "We may not be able to provide them with the comfort or the love a parent could give, but we can make their lives a lot easier."
Thankfully, Post 2 has friends in the community who want to help. Pedersen says two of them, Angel and Christine Trauwitz, do as much as or more than some members to make sure the Legion is able to keep supporting La Esperanza and Casa Rosa de la Torre. They've visited both homes, and called on hotels and manufacturers for donations of food, sheets and other items.
"He has contacts everywhere," Pedersen says of Trauwitz, whose father served in the Mexican military and was an aide to President Manuel Ávila Camancho in the 1940s. "It's unbelievable. And he loves the Legion."
A couple of years ago, Trauwitz attended a Thanksgiving dinner at Post 2, and "now they can't get us out the door," he says. "The Legionnaires are wonderful people. What's amazing to me is that these Americans give so much to charity. They do more than Mexicans."
In a week, Post 2 members will be back at La Esperanza, this time with pizza, piñatas and Christmas gifts. And a friend of Trauwitz has volunteered to put on a traditional Mexican posada, or re-enactment of the Nativity.
Pedersen would like to do even more - for the orphanage, for the blind girls, for Escuela Legión Americana. His post is few in numbers, but he believes they're making a difference.
"The best ambassadors you have here in Mexico City are Legionnaires, as far as good will," he says. "The kids see those caps, and there's nothing but smiles."
Matt Grills is managing editor of The American Legion Magazine.
To donate to Post 2's projects by mail:
American Legion Alan Seeger Post 2
Celaya 25, Colonia Hipodromo Condesa
Mexico City, D.F., Mexico 06100
Send an e-mail:
Contributions may be tax-deductible.