American Legion Post 116 annual car show in Fuquay-Varina, N.C., on Sunday, Sept. 30, 2018. Photo by Schelly Stone/The American Legion.

Community projects fuel North Carolina post’s membership surge

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Harold Boettcher grew up around The American Legion in Richmond, Va., where his uncle (a World War II veteran) was a member. Still, Boettcher didn’t join for roughly 40 years after he left the Navy in 1975.

“I remember going to the Legion post with my aunt and uncle back when I was a teenager, even younger,” he recalled. “I wasn’t associated with the Legion at all after I got out of the service. It just took me a while to find it.”

Boettcher joined the Legion when he discovered that Post 116 in Fuquay-Varina, N.C., started a Cruisers Club in 2013. The club hosts twice-annual car shows that draw roughly 50 classic automobiles and hundreds of attendees.

“Initially, the Cruisers Club was what drew me in to the Legion post,” said Boettcher, who volunteered at the Sept. 30 show while his 1965 Mustang convertible was among the cars and trucks on display in the post parking lot. “I found that it is a good group of folks to work with, and since joining, I have gotten involved with the Legion and its programs.”

The car show is just one example of Post 116’s commitment to its community, which has helped drive membership. Ten years ago the post had about 250 members. Now, it’s the largest post in North Carolina with 918 members in a town of 25,000 people, said Post Commander Derric Grimes.

In addition to the car shows, the post provides a home for a Boy Scouts troop, cleans up highway litter, donates to arts programs at the high school, participates in suicide prevention walks and more. “All of these things that we do shows our community how we give back,” Grimes said. “We’ve tailored our efforts, our mission, to supporting our community. People see The American Legion as a place that helps.”

Much like The American Legion Riders, the Cruisers Club is open to anyone who is a member of the American Legion Family and owns a classic vehicle that is 20 years or older. The club, which was formed in 2013, is believed to be the first one run by an American Legion post. The Department of North Carolina has approved the club as an official program, which is a point of pride for its director.

Lee Johnson, who is also the post’s first vice commander, said the idea started when the post’s Auxiliary unit put on a car show.

“I found that 28 of the 30 entries were eligible to be members but were not members,” he said. “Right there I had the idea to start a program. It’s really helped with membership. It’s really helped the post financially. We average about $1,500 of profit with each show.”

Johnson said that the program is expanding and six posts throughout the Tar Heel State have their own clubs.

In addition to the two annual shows, the Cruisers Club visits senior citizens homes and VA hospitals, drives fundraisers and does other community events.

The club supports the post’s youth programs, as well as its community-focused mission.

“Whether it is going into the elementary school to do the backpack program or going into high schools to talk about the dangers of texting and driving, they are very much outward focused,” Grimes said. “And the car show is not just members of the Legion. We have members from the community showing their cars, folks from all over the state come out for our car shows. We use the car show as one of our opportunities to get to know the people in our community who are veterans or families of veterans and get them involved in Legion programs.”

It’s just a sampling of Post 116’s active community involvement.

For example, post members participated in its fourth quarterly trash pickup Sept. 29 as part of the state’s Adopt-A-Highway program. Volunteers collected about 10 bags worth of trash including discarded paper, bottles, cans, broken glass and No Trespassing signs.

The most unique item program coordinator and post member Callie Clark has found so far? An unopened package of ground beef. “It had been out in the sun and was disgusting,” she recalled.

Volunteers met at a strip mall along a four-lane highway, where they boarded a truck. Half of them were dropped off a mile away in one direction and the other half were taken to the other side of town, a mile away. The groups worked alongside both sides of the road, reconvening back at the strip mall.

“We picked this route because it went through downtown and we felt more directly involved with the community,” Clark explained. “It was a good way for people driving through to see a cleaner Fuquay-Varina.”

There is no cost for the post to do the highway cleanup, other than some drinks and snacks for the participants. The North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) provides the gloves, bags and safety vests. Once the trash is collected, bags are left along the roadside and Clark contacts NCDOT to pick them up.

In some neighborhoods, city and community groups make concerted efforts to replace broken windows or cover up graffiti as a way to deter others from vandalizing properties. It’s the same concept for the highway track pickup program. Remove the trash and others will be less likely to litter.

“It gives the community a good sense of pride,” Clark said. “We want people to see that it is clean and nice, especially the downtown area. It’s a way to make people feel good about the community.”

Clark balances family obligations, her full-time job and college classes. Still, she prioritizes volunteer work with The American Legion.

“When I got out of the military, I knew that I wanted to serve with veterans,” said Clark, who was a medic in the Army. “My husband and I talked about wanting to do some community service. Being able to volunteer with the community has been very important to me and when I got out of the military I knew that I wanted to help veterans. The American Legion fits those goals.”

That’s what Grimes and other post leaders expect from members. At the same time, they work tirelessly to find and instill that same passion in new members.

Nathaniel “Nat” and Jocelyn Bradley, a married couple stationed at Fort Bragg, are members of Post 116.

“You want to serve and do whatever you can to assist, whether it’s active duty, reserves or this organization,” Nat said.

Jocelyn enjoys the camaraderie apparent at Post 116. “It’s nice to have a community of like-minded people who have given their time to the military and to their country,” she said. “The organization serves veterans while active-duty members still benefit as well as other veterans and retirees.”

After the Bradleys separate from the military, they see the Legion as an opportunity to continue their service.

“Derric is really inspiring,” Jocelyn said. “It’s been great to see all the work that he has been doing. I think when we do have more time, we will get more involved. It’s all about volunteerism. If it’s one thing I wish I had more time for, it’s volunteering.”