National convention volunteer effort is 'what we do'

In what has become an annual national convention tradition of service to community, dozens of American Legion Family members ventured out into the rain Aug. 24 to join with a local non-profit to make improvements to a community garden originally started by senior apartment residents but what has since morphed into a neighborhood project.

Around 40 Legion Family volunteers joined up with Rebuilding Together Twin Cities to make improvements to the two-year-old 7th Neighborhood Garden in St. Paul, Minn. The garden originally was started by residents in the Cambric Senior Apartments, including some veterans, but has since become more of an East 7th Street neighborhood project.

Past Department of Colorado Commander Terri Clinton took time off from work and flew into Minneapolis a day early so she could participate in the effort. “We always say as an American Legion Family it’s what we do,” she said. “We support our veteran communities throughout the nation, whether that’s through our post or out here at a community event here at the (national) convention. We had more people who wanted to volunteer than we had seats on the bus. I think that speaks volumes about who we are as an organization.”

Rebuilding Together works with low-income homeowners to make critical home repairs allowing families to live in safe, warm and healthy homes. The organization previously has worked with The American Legion in other cities across the country, including similar national convention events in Milwaukee, Wis., Houston and Charlotte, N.C.

Teaming up with other organizations is critical to Rebuilding Together Twin Cities carrying out its mission, Director of Projects Tony Sjogren explained. “If we don’t have volunteers to come out to do projects, we don’t do projects,” he said. “(Volunteers) are our labor force. We actually only have about four people who go out in the field and do projects. When we do 80, 90, 100 projects a year, there’s no way we can do that unless we have volunteers. That is our lifeblood for the labor that we use.”

Sjogren said the people that started the garden have 470 years of gardening experience but that it’s gotten difficult for its users to do general upkeep to the garden. The Legion Family volunteers spent their morning building new garden beds, building a storage shed and building a compost bin.

“They’re passionate about being able to give back to the community in which the national convention is being held,” said National Membership Engagement Coordinator Michele Steinmetz, the project manager for the Legion side of the volunteer effort. “They don’t care about the rain, wind, storms. They toughed it out in the military, and they’re toughing it out today.”

Mario Cristaldi, first vice commander at American Legion Post 337 in Broadalbin, N.Y., took part in the volunteer project at the suggestion of new Department of New York Commander Gary Schacher.

“It’s for the community. It’s what we’re all about: community, state and nation,” Cristaldi said. “This is all part of our Four Pillars of The American Legion. This is what we do. We help veterans. We help communities. We help anyone that we can. It’s what we’ve been built on.”

Department of Colorado National Executive Committeeman Tom Florez has taken part in multiple volunteer efforts around the national convention for a pretty simple reason. “This is what veterans do,” he said. “You just do it because you’re helping people out. The national convention is great, but you need to get out there and do something different. Helping out someone is more hands-on.”

Florez said what the volunteers did in St. Paul is similar to how The American Legion impacts the communities in which it exists. "I think this is a reflection of each post throughout the country,” he said. “They’re doing exactly this. They have a veteran that needs a hand, say like a new handicap-accessible ramp. The Legionnaires will get together, go out there and do it – and do it right. There’s always someone in The American Legion helping out.”