A homecoming with a membership purpose

Legionnaires from all over the state of New York were in the Bronx March 27-29 for a three-day revitalization effort. They were joined by others who traveled from even further away: National Membership & Post Activities Committee Chairman Kenneth Orrock, who resides in South Dakota, and National Membership Director Billy Johnson (Indianapolis).

And then there were three people who came from even further away: Department of Puerto Rico Legionnaires Ildefonso “Pancho” Colon Jr., his wife Maria and Nelson Ortiz – all members of Post 47 in Cabo Rojo – made the more than 1,700-mile trip to the New York City borough to help boost membership in the area.

For Pancho Colon, it was a homecoming. He was born and raised in New York City before leaving the city at age 18 to enter into a 25-year career in the U.S. Marines. Ortiz also is a native New Yorker.

“One of the reasons we’re here is that there is a very large Puerto Rican community,” said Colon, Puerto Rico’s National Executive Committeeman. “We joke that the Bronx is the second capital of Puerto Rico. I think there are 3.5 million Puerto Ricans here and 3.9 million in Puerto Rico.

“We’re finding there are a lot of older veterans here, Korean War veterans who don’t speak English because they were in a segregated unit in the military. (Past National) Commander Fang Wong asked me if I wanted to help out with this, and so we came up here after we were at Department Service Officers School in Washington, D.C.”

The Bronx project was one of a continuing trend of efforts to revitalize an area or district, rather than a single post – stressing during the effort to members residing in a department headquarters post to get into a local post so they feel a stronger connection and can get more involved with the Legion.

Based out of Samuel H. Young Post 620, the dozens of Legionnaires helping out made phone calls off a list of former or department headquarters post members, and went door to door using the same list.

“These posts are a big help because we’re not only able to reach out to (headquarters post) members, but we’re also able to ID delinquent members already in a post,” said Bronx County Adjutant Joe Goonan. “We’ve all identified the same problems with membership throughout New York City, so it’s great for so many people to come together to help out with this. It’s important that we get these guys – especially these young guys – hooked up into a local post.”

Orrock, who spent a significant amount of time going door to door, was taking part in his first district revitalization. “It’s been really exciting to see this camaraderie and everyone coming together to produce this kind of efficiency,” he said. “The work leading up to it, as well as the work by the local Legion family, has been exceptional.”

Orrock wants other departments to take advantage of the resources available through revitalization collaborations with national headquarters. “They need to recognize the value in this,” he said. “It’s really national coming in with a tool chest of opportunities that can benefit your county, district and department.”

Prior to the start of one of the daily sessions, Department of New York Commander Kenneth Governor told the revitalization teams that, “We are a young and vibrant organization with a 95-year history. There wouldn’t be a GI Bill if it weren’t for us. There wouldn’t be a (Department of Veterans Affairs) at the cabinet level if it weren’t for The American Legion. When you talk to people, tell them this.”

Driving membership wasn’t the only goal during the effort. Dana Verissimo, New York’s assistant department service officer, was at Post 620 all three days to assist veterans with VA benefits questions. And help was provided elsewhere.

During one door-to-door stop, a group of Legionnaires stopped by the home of Korean War veteran Pedro Figueroa, who served in the 65th Infantry Regiment, nicknamed "The Borinqueneers." The Legionnaires visited with Figueroa for awhile and were able to put him into contact with an American Legion service officer to see if there are any benefits available to him.

And in another instance, another group of Legionnaires came across an elderly veteran being abused by his caregiver. While the caregiver fled on foot, the Legionnaires rectified the situation by alerting the proper authorities.

Over three days, the revitalization team transferred 109 members into local posts, signed up four new members and renewed two others. But Johnson stressed that the three days spent canvassing and calling were only the start. “Follow up after this,” he said. “Get to know these veterans. Make them feel welcome.”

For Colon, the trip to the Bronx – his first since 2007 – was a positive one. “Coming back here as a veteran and being able to help fellow New Yorkers was a great experience for me,” he said. “And we wanted to learn from this, so we can take it back home and put a Puerto Rican spin on it. If you can get a culture of growth going, it’s infectious.”