On a warm sunny Saturday in San Diego, young children were enjoying a bounce house. Nearby in the closed-off parking lot, older kids were joyfully racing large tricycles and dodging water balloons. Inside, karaoke tunes were blasting, faces were being painted and cookies were being decorated.
It wasn’t a birthday party. Nor was it a neighborhood festival. It was the first American Legion Family Play Day, held at Post 365 in Vista, Calif.
While kids played and sang, adults mingled and played cornhole with patriotic-inspired beanbags. The day was an example of the vision articulated by Post 365 Commander Steve Miller.
“The Legion is family-oriented anyway,” he said, noting that the post hosts weekly kids karaoke. “We’re trying to do anything we can do enhance the family orientation so anytime that we have the opportunity to get kids in here and young families, that’s a win-win. I want the young families to come in — kids, grandkids — this is a family atmosphere. Why would you not want that? It’s an opportunity to bring the Legion and families together.”
That’s the vision behind the pilot program approved in Resolution 20 by the Legion’s National Executive Committee at the Spring Meetings in May. Other American Legion posts are planning similar events in the coming weeks.
By all indications Post 365 achieved the objective of the resolution: “promote a fun, positive public image and attract a new generation of American Legion Family members through the planning and operation of Family Play Day or Game Night events in their communities.”
Robyn Nolin brought her 11- and 8-year-olds sons to the event.
“It’s family — Legion Family — it’s what we do,” said Nolin, an Army veteran and commander of Post 364 in Santee, about 45 minutes away. “When I became commander, one of my goals was to get community and family to the Legion and get them involved. Most of us veterans have families, especially post 9/11, and as a recruiting mechanism we have to do better at doing family involvement at posts.”
As an example, Nolin said that her post held a flag retirement ceremony recently that was family themed. Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Brownies all participated. “Their families came to the event and many of them don’t have exposure to veterans,” she said. “So this was a way that we could educate them on what The American Legion is all about.”
Such events go beyond a membership tool, she noted. It’s a way to educate the next generation.
“I think kids should have respect for veterans because that has kind of gone out the window,” said Nolin, a fourth-generation military veteran. “I have done the best that I can to educate the youth about those who have served our country. I knew it because that is how I grew up. But other children don’t know it the way that we did. I want my kids to know that not only did Mommy serve but to let their friends know that veterans are a huge part of America.”
The event attracted Brad Sakemi, a post 9/11 Army veteran and member of Indio Post 739.
“The family atmosphere, food, drinks, the kids can have fun and the parents can have fun,” said Sakemi, who attended with his wife and 2-year-old son. “All the children here always take real good care of my son. It’s a family atmosphere. Kids and everyone have fun. It’s a great place to bring kids, a friendly atmosphere, not cliquey.”
When he heard of the concept, Post 365 member Chris Yates did not hesitate to suggest it to Miller.
“Families are a huge part of who we are in the military,” said Yates, who served 20 years in the Marine Corps. “Our wives, our significant others, our kids, make sacrifices so that we can serve, so that we can be away for six months at a time, a year at a time, or just a few nights a week. And why should that change in The American Legion? Any successful American Legion, whether it's at the post level, the district or department level, has an active Auxiliary, has an active Sons of The American Legion and has an active American Legion Riders. You look anywhere, and although each one of those programs or organizations function very well on their own, the success is in those organizations that bring all of them together.”
While Post 365 has a strong track record of fostering family-friendly events, Miller sees the concept being applicable at all posts.
“Take a risk; try some different venues,” he advises. “Are all the ideas going to work? No. Try them and see what works for your post in your community. Reach out and find out from your members what they would like to see in terms of family-oriented stuff. Get input from your membership. There’s no silver bullet. But get engaged, try something and work with your membership, and you’ll find something that works.”
While Post 365 is assessing what worked and what didn’t, one thing is clear. “This won’t be the last one,” Miller said. “We’ll take a look at everything. Did we try to do too much? Should we focus in on the more popular things?”
Yates sees the Legion Family Days continuing, as an extension of the outreach that is already a priority for Post 365.
“At the end of the day, the mission is introducing the community to The American Legion, getting some of the active duty that's in the area to know that we're here, to know that we're a family-oriented organization, and that we have spaces for them to create similar programs on a more regular basis,” he said. “The issue is, can we do more for families? Can we bring more families in? Can we focus on the family so that we're not separated again? We've had enough separation from our families. If we come to the post and have a family fun day, we just enhance life. We enhance who we are and who we love, and we're doing what we do together.”