Photo by Lucas Carter/The American Legion

A diamond in 'a rough neighborhood'

When American Legion Post 14 in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, started cleaning up a park in a poor area of town a couple of years ago, neighbors scattered, not knowing what the volunteers were doing.

“They didn’t know how to react,” Department of Mexico Commander Ron Abbe said. “Actually one time we were painting graffiti off the walls. We came back to the post the next day, and they had put graffiti on our post because we had The American Legion signs. I guess the kids didn’t like us painting over (the graffiti). Now they see us doing it and will come out and even help. They come over here and help clean up sometimes, and they are thanking us.”

Abbe, former Post 14 commander, described the neighborhood as being “like an old ghetto, kind of a rough neighborhood.”

Now, thanks to Post 14, the community park provides a clean, safe refuge for children. The Legion recently put in teeter-totters, which join other playground equipment, weight benches, a soccer field and a basketball court. The court also benefits adults, too. Women practice Zumba in the mornings and evenings on the basketball court.

On Jan. 14, the park was dedicated and named Jay Sadler Park to honor one of the Legionnaires who has given time and financial resources to the project. As the dedication was taking place, the soccer fields and basketball court were full of kids playing excitedly.

“It’s a wonderful surprise,” Sadler said, who credited Abbe, Post Commander Dennis Rike and other post members for their work on the park and other community service projects. “We’ve been working on this project for almost two years and to have it named after me is unbelievable.”

The Legion has worked with the Navy League, local Rotary and DIF — a Mexican organization that supports children — on the park project. “We value you,” DIF President Candelaria Tovar Hernández told the Legionnaires. “We appreciate what you have done for us from the heart.”

Abbe said sometimes communities in this part of Mexico just need to be shown what’s possible. Once a project is started, the idea is to turn the upkeep over to the local community. For example, two nearby residents now tend to the park daily, cutting the grass, handling the landscaping and picking up trash.

“I was a little bit leery about even coming in here,” Abbe recalled. “You’ve got all of these people here and you’re wondering if you really should be in here, but pretty soon they just started coming out and coming over and helping. Now they come over and lift a little weights, sit in the park, and they enjoy it.”

For Sadler, this is an example of the Legion’s impact in Puerto Vallarta.

“The American Legion is a great group of people,” he says. “They not only served their country, but they are involved with the community here. When we came here there was trash all over the place. No one would come here. Now, in the evenings, they have a huge amount of kids here.”