As a child, Kendra Ryan and her military family moved frequently. For the past 19 years, Ryan has served her nation, currently as a captain in the Navy Reserve.
Ryan found her community at American Legion Post 119 in Estes Park, Colo., where she is assistant services officer and hosts a weekly yoga and stretching class.
“I never had a community that others might call their community,” Ryan said. “I went to seven different schools growing up, and moved seven times in my first five years in the service. I never had a sense of community until I moved to Estes Park. It was the first time I was able to experience what a community is all about, and The American Legion within that community is an even more special smaller group of individuals that I feel very fortunate to be a part of.”
Terry Rizzuti, a former commander, lured Ryan in by convincing her that the post was passionate about community service.
“One of the main reasons that I joined the Legion is to have a mission, or a continued obligation, of service,” she explained. “Once I do retire eventually, I would like to continue my service to my community and to the larger country. The American Legion post is a great way to do that.”
The post — chartered in 1920 — has sponsored Boy Scout Troop 8 since its founding 80 years ago. More recently the post began to support the troop’s Explorers club. “A young lady expressed how much she enjoyed the club last year,” said Loren Shriver, commander of Post 119. “We’re thrilled to be a part of it.”
During October, Post 119 hosts a haunted house for children. After Thanksgiving, its Tiny Tots program allows children to visit Santa Claus. It also sponsors a Legion baseball team and is looking to add a second one next year. A Riders chapter has been launched with 17 members ranging in age from their 20s through 70s.
Post 119 was not always this engaged in its community. The post’s resurrection began to take shape when Rizzuti took office as post commander a few years ago. A 13-year resident of Estes Park, he was concerned about the post’s declining stature in the community but was optimistic for the future.
“I liked what I saw for the future but I didn’t like what I saw right then,” he says, noting the post was turning into a bar and away from its community. “I began to look at programs — what is the post doing? And I was stunned.”
Under Rizzuti’s leadership, the post prioritized its programs. “I believe that is what The American Legion is here for,” he said. “It’s not to operate a bar. The bar is to go and celebrate what we accomplished.”
The post has not only grown membership and become a more integral part of its community, it found a creative source for revenue. Four food truck owners now rent the post’s kitchen. “That brings in some income,” he said.
Post 119 is the only veterans organization in Estes Park, which sits at 7,500 feet of elevation about a 90-minute drive from Denver.
“I have always thought veterans were a cornerstone of the community and I feel that way about this post. We are not only a cornerstone in terms of people, we are a cornerstone in terms of location,” Rizzuti says, noting the post sits in the middle of town at the intersection of two main highways. “We are extremely visible to almost every visitor who comes into this town.”
Shriver credits Rizzuti for envisioning the post’s role in its community. Support for veterans, their families and the community is a prime mover of the post now.
“Our veteran and family support is now more noticeable,” Shriver said. “Membership has gone up for the post. We are getting more and more information about other veterans in the area. We'll go work on them a little bit and see if we can interest them in joining.”
Dick Life is among the post members charged with recruiting. “We want everybody — American Legion members, Auxiliary, Sons and Riders — to be recruiters,” he said. “Not just the three of us whose names are on the list.”
Life and Ryan talked about the importance of personal relationships with potential members. “Especially in our small town, it’s about building relationships,” she said. “Many of us already know so many veterans who are not members. When I think about how I joined the post, it was someone reaching out on a personal relationship and continuing that conversation.”
When Ryan joined the post she wanted to make a difference. Her weekly yoga classes are a combination of movement, breathing and meditation exercises that promote well-being among her comrades who participate.
Called Yoga for Resiliency, the six-week sessions began when another post member asked if Ryan would lead them. As a yoga practitioner for 19 years and instructor for a decade, she jumped at the opportunity.
“Yoga for Resiliency is about finding and learning techniques, breathing, movement and mindfulness techniques to overcome the stresses in our life, whether those were past stresses from the wars or current stresses that we face in our daily lives,” she said. “Our members are finding that just with an hour a week, they're learning these new techniques that they can take then out into their daily lives. It's not just about doing yoga on the mat or in the chair. It's about taking it, and applying it through your day to increase resiliency to those stresses we face.”
Ryan is resilient herself, balancing a young family, her yoga business, Navy duties and her American Legion volunteerism. Once she understood Post 119’s mission, she committed to the Legion Family community.
“It's a funny question when we ask ourselves, ‘Why do we continue to serve,’ and why we served in the first place,” she pondered. “I think it's something that's innate into us. There's just a driving mission to continue to serve. It feels great to do, and I love the relationships, and the community building, but it just feels like something I have to do. It just wasn't a choice.”