Teaching youth while growing the Legion

Eleven years ago, Legionnaire Steve Stephenson had an idea. The chaplain at Matheny & Henderson American Legion Post 131 in Leslie, Ark., Stephenson wanted to do something to both reach out to local youth and show the community that the post – which had dropped to single digits in membership – could make a positive impact on those around it.

Stephenson accomplished both, and in doing so also boosted the post’s membership. Post 131’s Veterans in the Schools Program has grown the membership to more than 100, paving the way for the building of a new post building.

But more importantly, Stephenson said, the program connects veterans with students in the Searcy County School District – which consists of Marshall Elementary, Leslie Intermediate, Marshall High School, and North Central Career Center & Alternative Education – and the community itself.

“This is a program that builds character in the child, and we are able to involve every kid,” Stephenson said. “But it also encourages the whole community to know who veterans are and to support the veterans organization.”

The first year, the program consisted of students drawing pictures of relatives who were veterans. After that, it evolved into an essay and poster contest. “I wanted a program that every child in the school district could be involved with,” Stephenson said. “The first year we had them write an essay or make a poster on ‘What I Will Do to Help Those Who Provide Shelter and Food for Me.’ That was pretty successful because it involved the parents.”

Certificates and cash prizes – roughly $600 per year – are given out to creators of the top posters and essays grouped by grades: grades 1-3, grades 4-6, grades 7-9, grades 10-12 and a composite from the alternative education center. Recent essay contest subjects have included "Veterans In My School," "What I Will Do To Help My Neighbors" and "What Does Personal Responsibility Mean."

The topics are shared with the schools via visits to every classroom from post members. There are more than 100 essays submitted annually to the post, which chooses winners in each category.

The winners are presented in front of the public at events such as the post’s Veterans Day ceremony at the schools. The presentations are followed by a luncheon.

“We tell them that since they were born into the greatest country in the world, they have a heavy responsibility to try to be the best kind of people we can be,” Stephenson said. “This program has built up to share that message.”

In addition to picking up close to 100 new members, the post also moved from an old log hut that the original World War I members of Post 131 had built to a new, 9,000-square-foot log building that includes a large hall and kitchen.

Included in the post is a wall covered with almost 800 pictures of veterans from the community. Students will come to the post in groups and try to identify members of their families.

Stephenson said the relationship with the school district has been “very successful. We’ve gone way up in our membership. And we are a presence in the community. We can walk down the street and little old kids will salute us and ask us when we’re coming back to school.

“The teachers love us. Parents love us. This whole program has just turned out to be wonderful.”