As a way to serve her fellow veterans and community, joining a veterans service organization has been on Veronica Soria’s to-do list. So when Soria saw American Legion Post 290’s booth at the Long’s Family Market in Stafford, Va., on Oct. 14, the retired Marine veteran said, “This is it.” She joined The American Legion that day.
Soria is one of more than 60 veterans that has joined Post 290 since last April when members set up a tent at the weekly farmers market. The community exposure every Sunday since then has not only grown post membership, it’s also increased membership in Post 290’s newly formed Legion Riders chapter and its Junior Shooting Sports Program.
Having a booth at the farmers market was about “getting out in the community and raising awareness and letting veterans know that we’re still here, we’re able to help them and their families … we are more than just a building,” said Post 290 Adjutant John Haehn, who has been at the farmers market – which runs until Thanksgiving – almost every Sunday since it opened. “It really has done a tremendous amount for the post.”
Haehn, a post-9/11 veteran, was approached by Robin and Lester Long – owners of the farmers market – about the idea of having a booth alongside the nearly 55 other vendors. “One of the things we’ve wanted to make sure was part of our plan was giving back to the community,” Robin said. Since Lester is a retired Army veteran, they wanted to bring the military community to the market. And that was by inviting Post 290. “It’s nice to see the post flourish and grow so much this year.”
Lester is now a member as well.
Opening day of Long’s Farmers Market was a brisk 36 degrees. Haehn brought his own pop-up tent, placed Legion brochures that he found at the post in blue bins, and gathered around a heater with other Post 290 members. “We really didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into, but we actually had (two) people sign up that day. It went forward from there,” he said.
By the second weekend at the market, 15 new members joined the post. And Haehn had a Post 290-branded tent made.
“Being at the farmers market has been a really good way to get our post back into the community,” Haehn said. And offer potential new members another way to join.
Soria said she would not have walked through Post 290’s front doors to join “because not everybody’s comfortable with that.” However, seeing the post at the market “I think is the best thing. It incites (veterans) to come.”
Post 290’s recruiting success has come from being engaged about what the post does for veterans, youth and the community, and who is eligible to join the Legion Family.
“Actually being here physically, we’ve had a lot more people go, ‘I didn’t know I could join (because I’m still in the military);’ ‘Do I have to be a wartime veteran or have to deploy?’ and ‘Oh so my wife can actually join, my kids can join, this can be a big family thing?’ Absolutely yes,” Haehn said.
“Talk to them, hear their story, learn about that individual. There are families out there that want to be a part of something.”
After that, Haehn said recruiting becomes a natural process.
“Being out at the farmer’s market we’re able to reach hundreds of people every Sunday and allow them to know all of our programs – Boys State, Girls State, Legion Baseball, family dinners, bingo nights,” Haehn said. “They see we’re doing great things in the community and they’re like, ‘Oh I want to join, and I want my family to be a part of this.’”
It’s because of this that Post 290’s Legion Riders chapter has grown and its Shooting Sports program was saved from dissolving.
Legion Riders Chapter 290 got underway in June with six members. It now has 35 because of the farmers market.
When Haehn approached Riders Chapter 290 Director Fred Santiago about being at the farmers market, Santiago said, “I think that’s a great idea to go outside into the community and start looking for motorcycle enthusiasts that were in the community that would like to join our riders and our post. It’s a perfect venue to get from the outside of the walls of our post and get out into the community which is what The American Legion is all about.”
Santiago is at Post 290’s booth almost every Sunday with his motorcycle, which he says attracts people who are motorcycle riders and oftentimes veterans.
“Not only did we project out into the community saying yes we are here, yes there is an American Legion post in Stafford County, when they started seeing the motorcycle and they started talking to us about the different programs that we have, not only about riding motorcycles but also what the riders can do for the post, what the riders can do for the community.
“Yes, we do bring new members in. But we’re getting the word out to the community what we do.”
The post’s Shooting Sports program was about to go away due to only six participants. Now, the program has 21 youth marksmen from market attendees picking up flyers about the program from the Post 290 booth.
“I’m trying to get more visibility for The American Legion in general,” Haehn said. “Even if it’s just going to the farmers market on Sundays and getting out there and saying, ‘Hey, this is what we do.’ That’s what I’m trying to do to help our post grow and stay alive.”