'I am my brother’s and my sister’s keeper'

There have been times when those participating in Corey E. Garver American Legion Post 202’s Winter Classic in Topsham, Maine, have slid on ice trying to run to first base, broken through a crusty layer of snow running down a fly ball, or even disappeared into a fluffy, four-foot pile of the white stuff attempting to dive for a ball in foul territory.

Not ideal conditions for softball, but that doesn’t matter at all to those who have been taking part in the annual fundraiser – some for all six years of its existence. From sub-zero temperatures to snow drifts lining the field adjacent to Post 202, the conditions don’t matter as much as the event’s cause: raising money to help end the veteran homelessness issue in Maine.

The motto for the event, which took place on Feb. 22 this year, is concise and to the point: “We play in the cold so that veterans don’t have to live in the cold.”

“That’s all this is about,” Post 202 Commander Nancy Laffin-Gillespie said. “Yes, we’re having fun. It’s a unique thing playing in the snow. But the reality is people live in the cold. Everybody here knows the reason why they’re here is to keep people out from the cold.”

The idea for the Winter Classic came from former Post 202 Commander Nik Hamlin, who helped save a nearly defunct Post 202 in 2013 and now is a member of American Legion Post 158 in Lisbon to be closer to home. But Hamlin doesn’t like to take credit for a vision that has grown bigger every year.

“I can’t take credit for this event because it’s a community event,” Hamlin said. “I can’t do this without everybody. When it comes to tackling any kind of issues that affect society, it’s going to take the community to do it.”

Laffin-Gillespie said the post is in the right community to make something like the Winter Classic a success. “We are very lucky here in the state of Maine. Our veteran community is amazing,” she said. “We all come out together and try to help in any way we can for any veteran problems.”

Each year the money raised has gone to a local or state program that includes among its mission eradicating veteran homelessness. This year’s funds went to Maine Veterans In Need, a non-profit that consist of members of the Maine American Legion, the Bureau of Maine Veteran Services, the Department of Veterans Affairs and other service organizations.

Teams were asked to donate $200, but many upped that donation. Additional funds raised and donated, along with a raffle and 50-50 drawing, brought this year’s total raised to more than $4,500 – triple what the event raised in 2019.

While Hamlin was pleasantly surprised by the donation total, “I feel if I wasn’t able to (donate that amount) this whole thing would feel hollow,” he said. “To be able to do that … I can see the fruits of my labor. I can see where the money goes. I can see those affected by it. I owe it to the people that come here to donate it to a place that’s a good place to accomplish the mission.”

Post 202 has thrived in part because while embracing traditional American Legion programs, it also takes a unique approach to carrying out its other missions – such as the Winter Classic.

“What we found with this is you can do it in a fun way,” said Department of Maine Commander Matthew Jabaut, a member of Post 202. “Too many times our events are maybe a little too solemn or a little too formal. If you can do a lot of cool, good, serious work in a fun way, it’s able to reach people, and then people really want to get active and engaged and be part of that. And then there’s that good feeling when you leave … and you’re not just having fun to have fun. You’re also doing it for a good cause.”

Laffin-Gillespie transferred to Post 202 around two years ago because of what the post has been able to accomplish over the past six-plus years. “I really like this post has a good grasp on the mission of The American Legion,” she said. "It has a good grasp on veteran issues that need raised (and) that people need to be educated on. And we make progress in trying to help these problems.”

One of those problems is veteran homelessness, which has dropped considerably in part due to the efforts of Maine Veterans In Need, but still remains an issue in a state with a long, brutal winter season. “Veterans, especially when they’re transitioning, can fall into a lot of holes. I, myself, was a couch surfer for a while when I got out,” Laffin-Gillespie said. “Having a place that’s your home – your own home – means a lot. That’s why it’s important to me that I can help any veteran that I can. If this helps them to get a hotel room for five days just to get them off the street … that’s great.”

Those who participate in the Winter Classic share the same sentiment. Russ Taylor, a longtime member of the Sons of The American Legion and the current SAL Squadron 86 commander, has been a part of four of the six years of the Winter Classic, playing on a team consisting of American Legion Family members from Post 86 in Gray, Maine. Every year Post 86 has fielded a team for the event.

“We’ve never done very well, but we have fun and it’s for a good cause,” Taylor said. “We can go play in the snow for one day (and) a homeless veteran doesn’t have to live in the cold – that’s why we do it."

Team Grateful, which plays out of Lovell, Maine, has won the past two Winter Classics. But while the squad celebrated after its most recent championship, that’s not what motivated the squad to drive 90 minutes each way to play at Post 202.

Rich Massey, a member of Team Grateful, has participated in five Winter Classics with his team. “I think the biggest reason I do this is I didn’t serve,” he said. “This is how I try to pay it back: doing stuff like this and contributing any way I can. We love this, and we’ll be back every year.”

The double-elimination tournament started at 10 a.m. and wrapped up at around 5:30 that evening. Music played throughout the day, while those attending could get assistance from the Department of Veterans Affairs’ mobile Vet Center, which was set up outside the post.

Also in Post 202’s parking lot was a trailer converted over to temporary homeless veteran housing by Charles E. Sherman Jr. Post 36 Legionnaires Ed Harmon and Arthur Richardson. The Winter Classic gave participants and spectators a chance to check out the trailer, which is intended to be a prototype for a larger future fleet of similar trailers.

Harmon said it’s important to work together to end veteran homelessness. “It’s going to take a team to solve this issue,” he said. “It won’t just be one individual.”

But the Winter Classic started with one person: Hamlin. And it’s a cause that gets him emotional at times. Prior to the start of this year’s tournament, he shared with the participants the story of Navy veteran Russell Wilson, who died this winter in his sleeping bag near railroad tracks in Brunswick.

“We’re here to stop that. We’re here to make that (stuff) never happens again,” Hamlin said, his voice breaking a bit. “Help me make sure that never happens again. It takes a community to save a community.

"I am my brother’s and my sister’s keeper.”