Play Day brings North Carolina community together

In the pine-tree shade of a hot July Saturday outside Fuquay-Varina, N.C., American Legion Post 116, children are lined up to toss rings onto a peg board. Nearby, two boys are competing to see who can knock down the most bottles with a Nerf gun. Nearby, a Boy Scout calls for basketball hoop shooters. Down on the parking lot, two teams of uniformed police officers are tossing beanbags in a friendly game of cornhole while firefighters a few feet away show kids what’s inside the two fire engines they have brought to the post.

And Post 116’s immediate past commander, 34-year-old Derric Grimes, an Army combat veteran and father of two young girls, is getting doused in the dunk tank. The Fuquay-Varina American Legion Baseball team has shown up, fresh off a shutout victory to advance in the state playoffs, and they show Grimes no mercy, firing at the target over and over, watching the Legionnaire sploosh into the vat.

“You can’t just say you’re family-focused or family-friendly,” says Grimes, whose wife Jennifer is also a post-9/11 Army veteran, active Legionnaire and American Legion Auxiliary member. “You’ve got to put your money where your mouth is.”

Acting on a resolution passed at the American Legion National Executive Committee meeting last May, Post 116 organized a Legion Family Play Day last Saturday and built on its strategic mission to grow through community engagement of all ages.

“This is great,” says Post 116 First Vice Commander Calanthea Clark, a 32-year-old Army veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom and mother of a young son. “For younger veterans like myself… you have a family to raise and can’t be out until 9 or 10 o’clock because you’ve got to get your kids to bed. Having events like this, where we can come out and enjoy the Legion and involve the family is really important.”

Community outreach is familiar territory for Post 116, which has grown by about 700 members over the last decade, to an all-time high of 918. “If we do not engage the entire family unit, we’re not going to catch these kids in their 20s and 30s coming out,” Post 116 Commander Gerald Brannon says. “This is officially our first Family Day, but we have always done this kind of thing.”

The NEC resolution called upon posts to “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.” Post 365 in Vista, Calif., piloted such an event on July 13, acting on the resolution. Another Family Play Day is scheduled at an Indiana post in early September. Their experiences will provide insights about how other posts can operate similar events.

Post 116 Americanism Children & Youth Chairman and Scout leader Scott Quilty, an Army combat veteran who lost an arm and leg to a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2006, says Saturday’s event provided a great opportunity to get the post-sponsored Scout unit involved. “For Family Day, I have been working with the various Cub Scouts and youth units here to get the carnival games together,” he says. “We have worked the last several weeks to build these durable carnival games that we can use year after year – not only the Scouts but the post.”

“The energy here is: we are family,” says William Slater Sr., a Vietnam War Army veteran and Legion Rider from the post’s chapter. “Everybody here works together. We have the Auxiliary, the Sons, we have the Cruisers (classic cars group), the Riders – all of our groups congeal to make this post great. We have Eagle Scouts from Troop 75 who have done a lot of projects here.” He explains this while standing on a deck that was built as an Eagle Scout project.

“When you think of Family Day, you have all the different elements of the Legion Family coming together,” explains Quilty. “It gives the community a sense that we are doing something here, that we are a place where folks can congregate and have a good time with their kids. I think that’s important. That’s not just a Scouting thing. That’s a Legion thing, too.”

For the post and the Scouts, the benefits are mutual, he says. Legion Family members, for instance, are happy to buy Scout popcorn, come to car washes and help the unit in other ways. “I feel like the Legion members here get a lot out of having youth programs so integrated into all the different events that they are doing.”

Lt. Brett Walsh of the Fuquay-Varina Police Department, last year’s national American Legion Law Enforcement Officer of the Year, says the Family Play Day gives kids and their parents a chance to interact with police and firefighters in a non-emergency atmosphere.

“You get out and involve yourself in the community, and they get to see us for who we are,” he says. “It’s not a negative interaction … a lot of times, we do traffic stops or have to do the business we have to do. (But ) this is kind of neutral territory where we get to interact with the kids and give them stickers – it’s a good time. We’re all part of the community, together.”

A Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq, Walsh says such opportunities draw others who served in the military into the American Legion Family. “It’s a great organization,” he says. “A lot of our officers are veterans, and it’s the same sort of transition. It’s about service. It’s about sacrifice.”

The Family Day at Post 116 also gave young people a reason to go outside. “Community events like this are important because a lot of times, parents are busy today with work, and it’s easy to let kids stay at home and watch TV while they are away at work. And they don’t know what’s happening in that child’s life.”

Grimes – who tells his 3-year-old daughter that “this is your Legion post” as she climbs atop Sam the eagle, a statue at the post’s front door – says more and more from his generation are finding their way into the organization because of the emphasis Post 116 places on connecting the generations. “They see it now as what The American Legion ought to be – a place that is there for the family, is there for the community, but is also a place for veterans, to be together, spend time together and build that camaraderie. It’s not that any one part of The American Legion’s mission is more important than another. We have to care for veterans. We have to support their families. And we have to strengthen our communities. It’s not an either-or, it’s an and.”

Sixteen-year-old Benjamin Brannon, a Scout and Sons of The American Legion member, says he has gained a better appreciation of military service through the post his father now leads. “It’s nice to get to know the Legionnaires,” he says. “I have a lot of respect for them. They have done something not very many people can do.”

Navy veteran Greg Gabry, a past commander of the post, says members have also embraced the “Buddy Check” program initiated last March by American Legion National Commander Brett Reistad. He says the post membership team, along with the service officer and assistant service officer, call on members every quarter and pay personal visits to World War II and Korean War veterans. “We are getting back to being a family organization,” he says.

“This is awesome, just to get everybody involved, as a big family, to help out in whatever way we can,” agrees Ken McNamara, the Sons of The American Legion squadron commander attached to the post. “It would be awesome to see this place grow even more and get more into the community, get more service members out here, get even more Sons.”

Troop 75 leader Michael Lake, who said it was important to involve the Scouts in the planning of the event and construction of the games, says activities such as the Family Play Day can work at any post, especially if they get active participation from young people. “Definitely engage the Scouts,” he says. “Get them to recruit other families to come in.”

Such events can get young people away from their digital media devices and video games for a while. “This particular event helps out. They are actually communicating and getting involved with other kids and families.”

And, he says, the collaboration is more than about having a good time or even performing services. “There are 12 points in the Scout Law,” Lake says. “We added a 13th point. That would be respect. With The American Legion, it’s very important to teach respect of elders, veterans – it doesn’t matter who you are.”