Legion post back from the brink

Things had gotten so bad in spring of 2017 for Raymond Cleaves American Legion Post 861, located in Mattituck, N.Y., on Long Island, that Post Adjutant Art Tillman was afraid the post was going to shut down – just three years shy of its 100th anniversary.

“We had three meetings at the post … we never got more than four (members to show up),” Tillman said. “It was very bleak.”

The suggestion came about that since the post did have some cash reserves, maybe a free community meal would get the ball rolling on a revitalization effort. And it was just the spark the post needed.

The meal, along with a concentrated community outreach effort that includes both local traditional and social media, has helped Post 861 stave off extinction and head toward continued growth. The post has grown to nearly 30 members, sponsored two students to New York Boys State, provides a local high school scholarship, hosts a Vietnam veterans appreciation event and has stayed active in its community.

Tillman said he was brutally honest when prepping for the dinner. “I said that if we don’t get enough people to show up, the post is going to disband. Period. End of story. No doubts about it,” he said. “And people came out of the woodwork.”

The post took to a major outreach effort that started with better communication and involves the post’s sergeant-at-arms, Ed Thompson, and Post Public Affairs Officer Lisa A. Dabrowski, a member of the American Legion Auxiliary. Thompson handles electronic media, while Dabrowski – who works for radio station WLNG, owns her own production company and is the granddaughter of a World War I U.S. Army veteran – uses her media contacts to publicize what the post is doing and helps organize events such as a bowling night and USO-type events.

And Tillman still regularly uses traditional media such as area newspapers to get the word out.

““We got fortunate in that we’ve got Art, who can write,” Post 861 Commander John Ribeiro said. “(Thompson) is a tech guy, so now we’ve got the website (and) we’ve got Facebook. And we recruited Lisa because she’s in media. Basically, we’ve got old-school (communications) and new-school (communications). And the idea is to use those to attract new members. We’re having some luck with that.”

Thompson had been a member of the post at one time but had let his membership lapse when he became active in other areas of the community. But when he saw the notice from Tillman about the dinner and possible closure of the post, “I got sentimental. Here the post was almost 100 years old and it was going to close. So I came down, I signed up and I’ve become active.”

Thompson told the post membership that both a website and Facebook were necessary. “I can put information up there, and I can say ‘go to the website’ or ‘go to the Facebook page,’” he said. “And we get 60-70 hits on different things we’re putting out (on Facebook). You have to get the word out on things you’re doing.”

Dabrowski said she became involved with the post because “veterans have always been important to me my whole life because of my grandfather. I’ve always had a strong patriotism. I just wanted to help out and do my part.”

“One of the key elements is getting the perception changed,” Post 861 Vice Commander Ron Breuer said. “Lisa does a lot of outreach for us – a LOT of it. She really gets the word out.”

In addition to traditional American Legion programs, such as Boys State and scholarships, the post is trying out non-traditional activities.

“One of the things that we’re trying to do is work outside of the box,” Ribeiro said. “We’re going to do a War Movie Wednesday (at the post). We’ll show a movie, and afterward we’ll have a discussion about both the movie, we’ll have popcorn and soda, and we’ll charge admission.”

Breuer also has started using mylegion.org, a web-based tool that provides membership information, reports and electronic membership tools such as data change forms for department and post leadership.

“I think that will be a great tool,” Breuer said. “You can access all your members … and see members who have joined but aren’t attending (meetings). It looks like a powerful tool, and we’ve shared that with everybody (in the post).”

Tillman said while things have turned around at the post, work remains. “It’s still a rough road,” he said. “We can have meetings where enough people don’t show up. But we can have meetings where maybe 20 people will show up. We’re better, and we’re going to keep trying to get better.”