Pop-up shops, food and toys in Monterey Park

Supporting veterans and the community has always been a priority for American Legion Post 397 in Monterey Park, Calif. And like many posts across the country, they were left with an empty building and parking lot due the COVID-19 lockdown. With a desire to continue yearly holiday traditions and support local businesses who have been affected due to the lockdown, the American Legion Post 397 family found a creative way to continue their mission while staying compliant with health guidelines.

On Saturday, Dec. 5, Post 397 held a small business pop up and toy drive in its parking lot while staging a food bank inside the post.

“Every year we have done a toy drive, and over the years we’ve done several different types of Christmas events,” said Post 397 Commander Gabriel Suarez. This year would be a first for the post with several goals. The first goal of this event was a toy drive to gather toys for Post 397's Christmas party, “Wonderland Drive-Thru” that will take place later in December. The second goal was to support small businesses in their community who have been affected by the lockdown. "We invited the small businesses in the community to come here and set up a booth. These are vendors and families who depend on their business."

Therefore, Post 397 members opened up their parking lot for small business pop-up booths. While post members and members of the community came through to drop off toys, they had an opportunity to do a little holiday shopping at the vendors in the parking lot. Food donations were also provided.

The parking lot was lined with small pop-up tents with for the small businesses. Many of these businesses had been affected by the COVID-19 lockdown and welcomed the opportunity to sell their wares outdoors in a safe environment.

Although Post 397 had its first successful pop up a few weeks prior, this was the first one in which Unit 397 Auxiliary member Renee Pizana set up her business called Color Street which sells nail polish color strips. Pizana joined the Auxiliary because of her brother who was a member of Post 397. She volunteers to give back to the place that provided so much joy to her brother. “I became a member of this post because my brother was a member here, and he passed away last year. So my volunteering here is in his memory, and it makes me feel closer to him like he’s here with me.”

Pizana also volunteers on Tuesdays and Thursdays to do dog training for service animals at the post. She’s proud of her post for doing so much for the community.

Like many American Legion posts across this country, Post 397 is a family affair. Suarez is assisted by his wife, Karen Suarez who serves as secretary of Auxiliary Unit 397, her mother being the president. The post survives in part to the hard work of the Auxiliary. Gabriel expressed his appreciation for them. “The Auxiliary, when we are inspired to do something they are the backbone to getting it done. For that we are truly grateful.”

While Post 397's hall isn’t being used for meetings, it serves as a food pantry and staging area for food packages going out to veterans in need and members of the community.

During the small business pop up event, Karen Suarez was in the meeting hall quickly moving about small narrow paths between tabletops with boxes of food. Each box was going to a specific veteran who had indicated any dietary restrictions and special request on a blue sheet included in the box. These boxes are going to veterans currently living at U.S. Vets, a temporary housing organization in Inglewood, Calif. “All of our vets are different, we get to know them, we’ve now been serving them for six months on a monthly basis," Karen said. "We get to know them, what they eat and what they don’t eat.”

American Legion Family showed up to drop off gifts or food during the pop up event. They also took this opportunity to shop at the various pop up shops surrounding the post parking lot.