Kentucky Post 342 gives community reason for hope, optimism

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The past year has been one of the most difficult periods the nation, and the world, have experienced in the past century. But as COVID-19 vaccinations hit record levels and life begins to slowly return to normal, there is reason for optimism and hope.

Over Easter Weekend, American Legion Post 342 in Willard, Ky., did its part to provide some of that optimism and hope. Forced to cancel its fourth annual community egg hunt in 2020 because of the outbreak of the pandemic, the post put together a scaled-back, safer version of the event on April 3 to show the community normal is coming down the road.

“All of the kids, they enjoy it,” said Post 342 Commander Richard Dallaire, on whose property the egg hunt took place. “It’s given them all something to do. It’s kind of something you’ve got to do for the community. It’s our job. It’s what The American Legion is here for. We’re here to help our vets and help our community. It’s something we need to be doing.”

Cancelling the 2020 egg hunt was hard for Post 342, said Richard’s wife Whittney. American Legion Auxiliary Unit 342’s treasurer, as well as the district’s first vice commander and the department’s Education chairman. “We had everything prepped and ready, and we had to cancel at the last minute,” she said. “So it was devastating to everybody. All of the churches in the area help us put this on … and last minute we had to call a meeting to say ‘yeah, we’ve got to cancel.’”

In February a brutal winter storm left thousands in Eastern Kentucky without power for weeks and was followed by flooding. It was Post 342 that stepped up, opening the post as a warming station while serving thousands of meals to members of the community in the process. The egg hunt was another way to show the community that the post is committing to assisting others.

“The ice storm in February devastated our area,” Whittney said. “These kids have had a rough go-around, more so, than normal kids during COVID with the storms and missing school. It’s really important to give the kids something to make things normal.”

Willard resident Debbie Barnhill has brought her grandchildren to Post 342’s egg hunt every year since it started and watched as they gathered eggs this year. She said not being able to bring them in 2020 was difficult.

“It was sad. They missed out on a lot last year,” Barnhill said. “They looked really forward to (this year’s egg hunt). They were excited about getting to come.”

Dozens of youth, some as young 3 or 4, spread out across the field adjacent to the Willard Church of Christ, where Post 342 American Legion Family members had placed around 4,000 eggs filled with candy and small toys this year. The sounds of laughter and excitement as eggs were discovered, along with the smiles accompanying them, were the payoff for the Dallaires.

“That’s what makes it worth it,” Richard said. “It takes a lot of work … but when it comes down to it, if you get one kid smiling, it’s all worth it. When you get 200-300, it’s just amazing.”

Whittney typically promotes a larger event to a larger audience. Past egg hunts had included 10,000-20,000 eggs, along with a lunch, bounce houses, games and prizes. Hundreds of children would participate.

Dallaire said she reduced promoting the event to Willard only in order to keep the crowds down. This year’s hunt also included a visit and photos with the Easter Bunny.

Barnhill praised Post 342 not only for the Easter event, but for its role in the area. “They’ve been very active in a lot of different areas, and we really appreciate it,” she said. “They work with the community well. We’re very thankful for them.”

Whittney said efforts such as the warming station and the egg hunt are reasons why veterans want to join Post 342. “We put things out in the community and invite people to join us for the event,” she said. “And usually by the end of the day, we’ve got four of five asking ‘how do I be a part of this?’”