'We can show them where to get help'

One purpose of an American Legion district revitalization is to transfer members currently residing in a department headquarters post into a post in or near their community. Another, obviously, is to sign up new members.

But the primary focus is to reach out to veterans in the area who may have fallen through the cracks, in order to see if they need any assistance or simply would like to talk with a fellow veteran.

That goal was definitely met in late October during a district revitalization in Collinsville, Ill. During door-to-door visits with current and former Legion members, a diabetic veteran was found who had no food in his refrigerator and had not had his medicine in two weeks because he and his wife were financially struggling.

District 22 Commander Glenn Gindler and other Legionnaires were able to fill the veteran’s refrigerator with food, get him the medicine he needed and put him in contact with a county veterans service officer so the veteran can continue to receive help. “Veterans helping veterans – this is truly what it is all about,” said Gindler, who also serves as commander of Post 708 in nearby Troy. “We can direct (veterans) to get help if they need any help. We can show them where to go to get help.”

In addition to helping that veteran, Department of Illinois Service Officer William Slider also was available at Post 365 in Collinsville to assist veterans with Department of Veterans Affairs-related issues. And then there was the membership aspect to the three-day revitalization.

While some Legionnaires made phone calls based off lists of former members and HQ post members, others took those lists and went door knocking throughout Collinsville and the surrounding areas of District 22, which consists of five counties and 48 posts.

But before a single phone call was made or door knocked on, Department of Illinois Membership Chairman Chad Woodburn stressed the service side of the effort.

“When you go out there, remember that it’s about service: veterans helping veterans,” Woodburn said at the brief training session that kicked off the effort. “We don’t just want their membership. We want to be able to help them.”

Past National Commander and current Department of Illinois Adjutant Marty Conatser took part in the revitalization effort. A former National Membership & Post Activities chairman, Conatser said membership is “where the rubber meets the road.” Going door to door brings the Legion to the potential or former member.

“The real difference is when they knock on that door, and that guy opens the door and tells you his story,” Conatser said. “You’ve got to figure out a way to have the Legion help him and him help the Legion. That’s what’s important, really. And that’s the reason to take new people out and show them how to door knock. It puts a real face on it.

“Every door has a different story – from the 92-year-old World War II vet we visited to the 20-year-old kid who just got back (from deployment). They each have a different story and each have a different want, and the Legion can reach all of those people. When someone shows up at your door … you know they care about you.”

District 22 Membership Chairman Hank Robards spent most of the three days going door to door as well. “The biggest thing is the personal contact,” he said. “If you don’t have the personal contact with people, you don’t have anything. They know you’re sincere about what you’re doing, and they’ll have more of a tendency to rejoin The American Legion.”

Conatser said taking a district approach, vs. attempting to revitalize an individual post, gives the Legion “a bigger pattern to work. Where we used to go to a post revitalization and get 25-30 people at the very, very most … by doing this you hit (multiple posts).”

The revitalization’s results were 81 members processed during the course of the three days, including bringing in 18 new members and transferring 58 members into local posts.

“This is a great revitalization,” Woodburn said. “Getting anybody into a local post out of the headquarters post (is good). Getting (58) is amazing. I’m extremely happy with it.”

But it wasn’t just about numbers. “(Whether) we get one or we get 50, we’re touching a veteran that may not have been touched before, or it may have been a long time since they’ve had contact with a Legionnaire,” said Woodburn.

Department of Illinois Commander Bob Henderson took part in the effort because of his passion for promoting membership and talking with fellow veterans. “I love to go out and knock on doors and talk to people,” he said. “You get people who haven’t seen anybody around.”

Henderson referenced meeting a 99-year-old World War II veteran during one of his stops. The veteran shared with Henderson stories of being a belly gunner on a B-17 and going on 33 missions.

“When we left, he was really happy,” Henderson said. “That’s what you like to see. It makes me feel happy, too.”