Wisconsin nonprofit Custom Canines trains and provides service dogs to veterans at no charge. With the cost of training a service dog reaching upwards of $26,000, the nonprofit asked The American Legion in La Crosse County if they could help in funding.
The seven Legion posts in the county got behind the mission and made a competition out of it. The post that raised the most money for Custom Canines would win naming rights for the next service dog and present the canine to the recipient veteran during a ceremony at the respective post. Fundraising efforts got underway over the summer and ended this past Veterans Day.
The Legion posts in La Crosse County fully funded a service dog with $30,000 raised. And American Legion Post 51 in West Salem, Wis., won the competition with the largest donation of $13,000.
Post 51 Commander Benjamin VanHorn said it was easy for everyone to get behind Custom Canines’ ask. “It’s a local Wisconsin nonprofit trying to help local veterans. And that’s our post. If we are going to help, there’s no questions asked from the Auxiliary or Sons of The American Legion.”
VanHorn added that the post has honorary members who are ineligible for membership in the Legion but still support Post 51’s missions. “We treat them like family. And when you tell them that, ‘Hey, we are going to raise money to support the fully funding of a dog to help a local veteran,’ there’s no question involved. They are all in. They’re behind the mission 100 percent, and it makes fundraising much easier.”
Post 51 held dinners every Monday evening to raise funds for the service dog that were spearheaded by Jim Gilbertson, the post service officer. When VanHorn presented the fundraising effort to post members, Gilbertson “loved it. He took that and ran,” VanHorn said. Gilbertson passed away unexpectedly in September. But the dinners continued in his honor.
“We all pitched in and kept those dinners going,” VanHorn said.
Post 51 presented Custom Canines with a check on Nov. 20 during a ceremony held at the post. During the presentation, post members announced that they are going to name the service dog Gilby in honor of their friend and service officer, Jim Gilbertson.
“I think he (Gilbertson) would be proud,” VanHorn said.
VanHorn is appreciative of the fundraising success that was made possible by Post 51’s Legion Family and community. The success “boils down to the four pillars” of The American Legion, he said. “If you have the four pillars of The American Legion in place, the community involvement and membership will be there. And the post has been very good about pushing the pillars and that's the reason why we have such good community support.”
And now, a financial burden has been lifted off Custom Canines thanks to the La Crosse County American Legion and its community. The $30,000 donation “was pretty amazing. It was a big thing,” VanHorn said.