‘Great marriage of The American Legion and law enforcement’

American Legion member and Ozaukee County (Wis.) Sheriff Jim Johnson drew inspiration from a 100 Miles for Hope challenge between the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the New York Police Department.

“I saw that there were none in the Midwest, so I thought our fairly small sheriff’s office, located along the beautiful shores of Lake Michigan, is a perfect spot to have another law enforcement team,” said Johnson, whose department has 90 sworn deputies. “This is a great marriage of The American Legion and law enforcement.”

Johnson, a member of Post 82 in Port Washington and 2nd district commander, underscored the two primary benefits of the third annual 100 Miles for Hope.

“I think it’s important to get your body healthy and also get your mind heathy as well,” he said. “It’s also one of our goals, as The American Legion, to help veterans and their children. It’s perfect for us to work on a project like this to make sure that those who are in need are taken care of.”

Community service and working with kids is a primary objective for Johnson and his department. They combined that commitment with 100 Miles for Hope and spent time May 17 at the Riveredge Outdoor Learning Elementary School in Saukville. American Legion Family members and sheriff’s deputies did a 1.5-mile hike with the students, ate lunch with them and played during recess.

“We do these programs throughout Ozaukee County,” Johnson said. “We have fun with the kids, having lunch and playing in the woods.”

Department of Wisconsin Commander Greg Eirich tossed a ball back and forth with a first-grader after lunch. He jumped at the opportunity to embrace the 100 miles campaign.

“I always love a challenge, especially when it comes from an Ozaukee County sheriff,” said Eirich, who served for 27 years combined with the Air Force, Air Force Reserves and National Guard. “I have put out the challenge to the American Legion Family through a video and other media sources to get the whole family involved in 100 Miles for Hope.”

It’s more than just a fitness and wellness program, as the $30 registration fee goes to The American Legion Veterans & Children Foundation (V&CF). (Register and/or donate to support the foundation.) In turn, the V&CF provides grants for military families in financial distress and funds accredited American Legion service officers who assist veterans with accessing their earned VA benefits.

“It is a good way to help out our veterans and military families and provide the necessary assistance they need when they fall on hard times,” he said. “This program is very needed and I am very proud to be part of this great event.”

Eirich is pursuing his 100 miles goal by walking and riding his motorcycle, and he expects to increase his walking after his year as commander concludes. Until then, he is encouraging Wisconsin Legion Family members to rally.

“We’re coming off a long winter and it is good for our Legion family to get out and be active,” he said. “What better way to enjoy it than by supporting the foundation? Whether you are canoeing, riding a bicycle, walking or hiking, what better way to do it than to challenge others in the family. We know Legionnaires are already out there doing it, so all they have to do is register and help the department hit its goal.”

Riveredge principal Mike Mullen didn’t hesitate when Johnson offered to bring American Legion Family members to the school for the 100 Miles for Hope hike.

“It’s critical for a lot of reasons. It works with our three pillars,” he said, noting they are nature, inquiry-based learning and community. “For us having those community partners, we benefit from (the Legion) presence being out there and being with the kids. And you have an understanding of what this is like to share with your members. For our students to have exposure to veterans and police officers, is critically important. Community partners like The American Legion only make us stronger as a community.”

The public charter school, now in its third year, has about 100 students, kindergarten through fifth grade. It is located on more than 400 acres. Students learn typical subjects like math, art, music, social studies in the outdoor setting; sometimes classes are taught in yurts.

Mullen, who came to Riveredge after being a teacher and principal for nearly 30 years, sees the difference the outdoor setup has on the students, teachers and staff.

“I see our kids as very communicative. They are with their peers during the day. There are not as many restrictions. This is our hallway,” he says, pointing to a dirt trail that winds through the campus. “Our kids get to talk about nature, get to talk to one another while they are out there. They are happier and healthier. This is a much healthier learning environment than other schools. And from what I have seen from other schools I’ve been with, we have a lot fewer behavioral problems. It’s a really healthy way to educate kids.”

While not every community has a school like Riveredge, there are opportunities for American Legion posts to engage their local law enforcement agencies in 100 Miles for Hope.

The first step, Johnson recommends, is to simply go talk with the police department. “See what they are doing, see how they can be involved. Legionnaires are a strong part of every community. So see how you can work together and how we can all be healthy through mind and body.”

On the day of the hike, May 17, Johnson surpassed 100 miles. “I am going to keep on going because I am competitive.”

That competitive nature is also what drives Johnson as the smallest law enforcement agency in this year’s 100 miles challenge. So who’s going to win?

“Oh, we’re not going to talk about that,” he said, smiling. “We don’t want to tell LA and New York that Ozaukee County Sheriff’s Office is going to win. … But we’re going to win.”