Editor’s note: This is a weekly series of Department Spotlight stories featuring unique programs and initiatives of departments throughout The American Legion. Department adjutants are invited to recommend subjects for their departments by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Iowa American Legion Foundation provides scholarships for veterans and children, supports veterans homes, and funds other community projects.
It’s perhaps a perfect example of the Iowa Idea, a concept brought forward by the department in the early days of The American Legion. The Iowa Idea concept was reborn when Past National Commander Donald Johnson wanted to establish something that would create permanent lasting value. It represented four words that the department still cherishes today — “Iowa Leads The Legion.”
“If you look back at the Iowa Idea when Hanford MacNider was candidate for national commander, that’s really where The American Legion’s Community Service Program came from,” said Past National Commander Dave Rehbein, president of the Iowa Foundation. “He believed, through the Iowa Idea, that in order for The American Legion to really be a successful grassroots organization, we had to be deeply involved in our communities. That’s where community service in The American Legion comes from, that’s where the Iowa Foundation emphasis on funding good things that other people are doing.”
In an Iowa Legionnaire article, MacNider is quoted from the first executive committee meeting of the Iowa Department. “We must show still more reason for existence,” he says. “We must continue to serve the country in the same spirit we had in war, and we can do that only if we have every post doing something for its community. The Legion, because its members are in nearly all other organizations and in all the churches, and because it represents so many different types of Americans welded by war service comradeship and working for a common cause, can do things no other groups can do.”
And that remains true even today. Right now there is more than $2 million in the principal and more than $100,000 in grants were handed out this past year, Rehbein said.
“I’m most proud of the generosity of the members of the Legion Family who have made this possible,” he said. “We do a lot of good things out there and there are lasting things out there. We went to the Gold Star Museum at Camp Dodge, and we ran across a POW/MIA exhibit that the foundation helped fund a number of years ago. It’s very gratifying to go out and see those things that are still there that still say American Legion on them. But it’s really the people. It’s really the generosity of the members of the Legion Family.”
A prime example of that generosity is the more than $30,000 worth of scholarships awarded this past year. And that’s as important as it is today as it was when the foundation was in its infancy.
“The Legionnaires who started this — Don Johnson, Churchill Williams, Ken Hatcher — they weren’t thinking about that year, they were thinking well, well down the road,” Rehbein said. “And they were thinking about both veterans and their family members because there are a lot of family members who don’t have access to the GI Bill. But yet, they’re part of that veterans family, that’s the future. Those are people that we hope will become Legionnaires but we really hope that they become successful Americans. And so making that contribution to their education is important to us.”
Terry Branstad, a longtime Legionnaire and governor of Iowa, is a founding board member and now director emeritus. “It's a good organization and provides a lot of financial assistance,” Branstad said. “Scholarships for Boys State and Girls State, helping the veterans home, and many different projects.”
Among the foundation’s projects is home eye test kits for children.
“It’s difficult when you’re dealing with 2-, 3-, 4-year-olds to really evaluate their eyesight,” Rehbein said, adding that the foundation has distributed up to 10,000 kits throughout Iowa. “That helped a lot of young kids at a time in their lives — as they were heading into school —to determine whether their eyesight is what it should be.”
Sometimes the charity comes full circle.
Charlie Becker, who runs a camp for handicapped children, is among the regular awardees. “We feel like we’ve made a real contribution to the success of that camp,” Rehbein said. “Charlie is one of these people who understands giving back. Charlie regularly makes a donation to the foundation to help other people too. That’s the kind of people you really want to get associated with.”
The success of today’s Iowa Foundation goes back to the early success of the Department of Iowa.
As an example, Rehbein said that posts could not be chartered in the state until May 12, 1919, but from then until the end of that year, 352 American Legion posts were chartered in Iowa.
“That’s just a mind-boggling number — that’s a post and a half every day,” Rehbein said. “That’s where things like ‘Iowa Leads The Legion’ come from. I’m very glad that the Iowa Idea has stayed a very strong part of The American Legion. All these years later, posts out there are involved in things in their community that aren’t an official national American Legion program, but their community needs. We have the kind of people who recognize that need and are helping with it.”