On May 31, 2017, the Sons of The American Legion tallied its nationwide fundraising efforts to assist organizations that help children facing challenges, from autism to physical abuse. The total for the fundraising year was $594,413.91, a record in a journey of aid that has poised the Sons in 2019 to break the $8 million mark in cumulative donations since 1954, when the Legion established the Child Welfare Foundation (CWF).

All contributions to CWF flow directly to groups that can make the biggest differences in the lives of children, a dynamic that has been part of the Legion’s identity since the mid-1920s, when Legionnaires realized it would be too costly and labor-intensive to start and staff orphanages in every state. A better approach, they agreed, was to support other agencies and associations through funds, volunteerism and advocacy. CWF was, and continues to be, an extension of that thinking.

More than $16 million in CWF grants have been disbursed since Dr. Garland Murphy, a decorated World War II flight surgeon and former American Legion Department of Arkansas commander, donated to the national organization fractional mineral rights to 10,000 acres of oil-rich land he owned in the Williston Basin of Montana and North Dakota. His one condition: the gift had to be used to help children. From that seed, more than $500,000 in grants per year are issued to groups ranging from Father Flanagan’s Boys’ Home at Boys Town, Neb., to the Common Strand Foundation of Virginia for its project to help children of those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

American Legion support for young people – a pillar value of the organization – takes many forms around the world. Legionnaires from Alan Seeger Post 2 in Mexico City borrowed money to build a school in the mountain village of Magdalena Petlacalco and provide monthly stipends to help educate blind, abused and abandoned kids in the community. “I don’t care where you are in the world, children are children,” then-Post 2 adjutant Dave Pederson told The American Legion Magazine in 2011. “And kids here are not well taken care of, especially the ones who have been abused. They need help.”

“It’s part of being a veteran and being an American,” added then-post commander Andrew Zgolinski.

In Cascade, Idaho, Legionnaires purchase warm coats, boots and gloves for low-income schoolchildren. In the Department of Kansas, Operation North Pole at Fort Riley distributes hundreds of toys to children of deployed soldiers during a two-day celebration of games, gifts, goodies and a visit from Santa. Legionnaires from Brig. Gen. Robin Olds Post TH01 in Thailand donated new school uniforms for poor students at a local elementary school last fall. And in 2016, members of American Legion Post 171 in Cripple Creek, Colo., rebuilt the uninhabitable home of a 100 percent disabled post-9/11 Marine Corps veteran whose young son has muscular dystrophy. Post 171 member Curt Sorenson calls this “camaraderie around a common cause.”

The ways in which The American Legion fulfills its Children & Youth mission often overlap with the organization’s other pillars. Boy Scouts of America (BSA) was the first youth program officially endorsed by the Legion, via a resolution at the 1st National Convention in 1919. The symmetry between veterans and Scouts was natural for posts across the country, as the Legion soon grew to become the largest non-faith-based sponsor of BSA units, today supporting more than 2,300 packs and troops worldwide. That relationship, which in many communities includes annual flag-retirement ceremonies, could be indexed under the Americanism or National Security pillars of Legion service as well as Children & Youth.

The main argument for American Legion Baseball, introduced at the 1925 South Dakota Department Convention in Milbank, S.D., came from former Army Maj. John L. Griffith, first commissioner of the Big Ten Conference, who told Legionnaires that sports and fitness opportunities for young people are a matter of national security. “You remember it was only a few years ago we commenced hastily and earnestly to take stock of our boy power and manpower ... because we realized in those days that it is the nation of physically fit men who would win the war, that we as a people were not physically fit for the last war, and we must cure that condition ... If the 12,000 American Legion posts could do that, I can think of nothing of greater importance or consequence in these days.”

Griffith’s recommendation was adopted as a national program the following year, one that imparts much more than catching, throwing and batting skills through an oath to “keep the rules, keep faith with my teammates, keep my temper, keep myself fit, keep a stout heart in defeat, keep my pride under control in victory” and “keep a sound soul, a clean mind and a healthy body.”

Former Arizona Diamondbacks star outfielder Luis Gonzalez, who played Legion Baseball for Post 248 in Tampa, Fla., has said it mattered to him that veterans were behind the program. “I learned a lot about respect,” he said. “When those guys came out to see you at the ballpark, you always knew that they sacrificed for us to go out and play hard.”

The American Legion’s nationwide movement in the 1920s to build and manage swimming pools and sports facilities in communities was certainly an initiative with children and youth in mind.  

In 1921, posts in the Department of Pennsylvania launched a School Award Medal program to recognize character, service and citizenship among young people. The program went national in 1926, which delivered more
than 25,000 medals last year to young people who met the criteria.

Also in 1921, when The American Legion and the National Education Association formalized a relationship to secure “for America a program of education adequate to meet the needs of the 20th century,” only about half of the nation’s 27 million school-age children attended classes daily. As the relationship unfolded, the Legion published two textbooks on history and civics for use in public schools and over the decades has distributed millions of dollars in college scholarships, taught flag education to kids and put veterans in classrooms to discuss wartime experiences.

The American Legion’s Children & Youth identity formed two distinct lanes that occasionally intersected:

Programs and services for responsible U.S. citizenship and leadership, such as Boys State in 1935, the National Oratorical Contest in 1938, Boys Nation in 1946, Junior Shooting Sports in 1991, Youth Cadet Law Enforcement and similar first-response programs over the past half-century, sponsorship of Junior ROTC programs worldwide, and hundreds of local efforts to promote wholesome development of youth, from high school rodeo in Wyoming to an after-school chess club in Oregon.

Programs and services for children in need – especially those facing difficulties beyond their control – including development of “children’s billets” for orphans and at-risk kids, regional Legion and Auxiliary case workers for children in need, Temporary Financial Assistance (TFA) cash grants for financially strapped military and veteran families with minor children at home, CWF, support for Special Olympics and hundreds of local initiatives worldwide.

The Children & Youth lanes intersected for Jerome Fortenberry, whose father was a disabled World War I veteran who died in the middle of the Depression, leaving five children. First to arrive at the distraught family’s home were the local American Legion post commander and service officer. Fortenberry said it was The American Legion that held the family together, keeping food on the table and a roof overhead. He went on to serve in the Navy during World War II and later was elected the Legion’s national chaplain. After he was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest, Father Fortenberry was a devoted figure in ANAVICUS (Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans in Canada and the United States), which raises funds to provide college scholarships for young people.

Jones recounted in his 1946 history another story where the two lanes intersected: 

“A veteran of Armenian birth and American naturalization brought his son to the U.S.A. after the war only to have the boy held at Ellis Island and ordered deported because of a contagious eye disease, trachoma. Through a Legion post to which the father belonged, a temporary delay was secured, then national aid to support the boy at Ellis Island hospital in hope of curing him, making him legally admissible. The Public Health Service reported him incurable. Dr. H.W. Wilmer, famous ophthalmologist from Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, was enlisted by the Legion (and) declared there was hope of cure. For three years, the Legion paid the hospital bill, while national officers twice visited Washington to secure delay in deportation. At the end, the lad was cured, sent to join his father. It had cost national emergency funds of $1,600, while the father’s contributions and local Legion helped pay the rest. The son of one immigrant who had fought for America was saved from becoming a blind beggar in Eastern Europe. Sixteen years later, the Legion heard that this Armenian lad, then married, had one other request to make of America. He wanted his 3A status in the Selective Service changed to 1A so that he could fight for the United States.”

Through the decades, The American Legion has had numerous influential staff directors, but few compare to Emma Puschner, a former St. Louis social worker who helped shape U.S. policy on support for children and families. Working in 1925 with National Commander James A. Drain and newly appointed Children’s Welfare Committee Chairman Mark McKee, who had personally adopted several orphaned children after the war, Puschner helped frame the “Whole Child Plan,” which stated that every kid deserves nothing less than a home, health, education, character and opportunity.

The American Legion had already established national “children’s billets” in Kansas, Michigan and New Jersey, but suspended that program (although Legion children’s homes operated well into the 21st century, the last of which was in Knightstown, Ind.) as new facilities in California and Tennessee were in the planning stages. By shifting its strategy, the Legion’s Child Welfare Committee and its allies – with significant assistance from the American Legion Endowment Fund (now the American Legion Veterans & Children Foundation) – was able to provide more than $57 million in direct financial aid to help 7.5 million children between 1925 and 1945.

The American Legion stormed to the forefront of national leadership regarding families and influenced policy on child labor, education, fitness and prevention of juvenile delinquency. Puschner, who was a White House consultant for what became the federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, was such a well-known figure that she appeared on the radio as herself in a 1944 episode of “The Guiding Light,” in which she addressed juvenile delinquency, community response to it and the importance of keeping families together.

“A nation that neglects to strengthen the security of its families, on which the future soundness of its own citizenship will be founded, cannot long maintain itself as a democracy,” Puschner wrote in the March 1941 National Legionnaire.

The two lanes of Children & Youth have seen many remarkable moments over the past century. A 1942 American Legion National Oratorical Contest championship helped future Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Frank Church of Idaho go to Stanford University. CNN co-founder Lou Dobbs won the oratorical contest in the same department at 17, an accomplishment he called “fundamental to my ability to communicate in public.” In 1967, future U.S. ambassador and presidential candidate Alan Keyes of Texas was first to win the National Oratorical Contest and be elected president of American Legion Boys Nation in the same year. Another Texan, Kevin Sladek, repeated that feat in 1999.

Hundreds of public figures – including President Bill Clinton – participated in American Legion Boys State programs. The 2002 American Legion National Junior Shooting Sports champion, Jamie Corkish, won an Olympic gold medal in the 50-meter rifle competition in 2012 and went on to coach and mentor other young marksmen after she retired from competition. American Legion Baseball has now produced 81 National Baseball Hall of Famers.

Millions of children throughout the nation and around the world have benefited from American Legion programs, services, funds and compassion, and an incalculable number of scholarships have made college possible for millions more, from the children of military personnel killed on duty since 9/11 to the annual Eagle Scout of the Year.

The American Legion Riders dedicate their annual Legacy Run to the children of servicemembers who have lost their lives or became disabled on active duty since 9/11. At the 100th American Legion National Convention in 2018, the Riders celebrated a fifth straight year of eclipsing the $1 million mark for the American Legion Legacy Scholarship Fund, which provides college money to young people like Elizabeth Brunke-Turner, whose father was 100 percent disabled after service in Iraq. She is using her $20,000 Legacy Scholarship to study molecular biology at Johns Hopkins University so she might one day become a surgeon who can help veterans. “My father’s service, and other peoples’ service, has very much inspired me,” she said. “It’s not just about going out to dangerous parts of the world. It’s any kind of service that helps people ... that’s part of why I want to be a surgeon – that idea of helping people, helping soldiers who have gone out and sacrificed.”

In January, when the federal government shutdown meant no mid-month paychecks for active-duty members of the Coast Guard, The American Legion offered expedited TFA grants to affected junior enlisted families with children at home. The distribution was an all-time single-month record for TFA: $1,030,163, which included aid for 3,120 children of 1,713 members of the Coast Guard. American Legion posts across the country also conducted their own fundraisers, served meals, and distributed items like diapers and baby food.

American Legion Committee on Children & Youth Chairman Herbert J. Petit summarizes the massive mission of this pillar of service into three main objectives: “to strengthen the family unit; to support quality organizations that provide services for children and youth; and to provide communities with well-rounded programs that meet the physical, educational, emotional and spiritual needs of young people. The committee works to provide hope for children who face health, safety, discipline or home-life challenges and provides opportunities for young people to succeed.”

Fulfillment of that mission has proven just what it means to be a veteran, an American and a Legionnaire.  

Jeff Stoffer is editor of The American Legion Magazine.