Since 1930, Loyd Spetz American Legion Post 1 in Bismarck, N.D., has led a community effort to provide food and clothing to area families in need during the holiday season.
In a year in which a worldwide pandemic has brought a halt to many annual events, it would have been understandable if Post 1 cancelled the annual Open Your Heart campaign.
Post 1 Legionnaire and campaign chairman Rick Kramlich didn’t see it that way. ““I didn’t want it to die on my watch, by any means,” he said. “If we could figure out … how do we carry this on with what we have in front of us, how we accomplish a goal and not do the easy wrong instead of the hard right. The hard right just took a little bit of an adjustment.”
Kramlich took over as the campaign’s chairman five years ago, succeeding Post 2 Finance Officer and 12-year chairman Bob Wefald. Kramlich reached out to Wefald to share his vision for adjusting this year’s Open Your Heart campaign for the pandemic.
In a normal year, Post 1 sets up collection sites for non-perishable food at area schools and local business, as well during a campaign kickoff event, and then assembles baskets for families of all sizes that are distributed during a large event at the Bismarck Event Center. Each food basket – which also included fresh food – provided enough food to last each family a week. The post also arranges for families to shop for clothing at Target for their school-age children.
COVID-19 has altered those plans. The post is instead mailing out gift cards to Dan's Supermarket for food and gift cards to Target for clothing.
“We said, ‘How can we carry on the legacy, continue our tradition of assisting clothing and feeding families, but try to keep the risk down to a minimum?’” Kramlich said. “We had our game plan starting in July. We’ve slowly been massaging it and adjusting it to (assist) everyone we could.”
Area families can apply for assistance through Open Your Heart; the post has created a vetting committee comprised of representatives from social services entities, charitable groups and schools who review the applications.
“Our one paid (administrator), Elizabeth Landis, gets so deeply involved with (the application process),” Kramlich said. “She’s been helping me out the last five years. She’s probably the biggest heart and most amazing lady out there.”
The event annually assists more than 1,000 people, including 1,100 in 2019. But with many families struggling financially because of the pandemic, Kramlich said the post has received more than 400 applications from families totaling more than 1,550 people.
The first Open Your Heart campaign was, according to then-Post 1 Commander, A.D. McKinnon, “merely a part of the organization’s plan of service to the community” when it was announced in the Bismarck Tribune. The post created the program “to solicit the help of those persons who might not care to assume a large responsibility but who can help a little … we feel we can supply leadership for the general public in a work which enlists the sympathy of everyone.”
Kramlich said from that idea has come an annual event that brings the community together for a common good. “We have generations of people who come down to help sort out the food items and pack the food baskets – people who have been doing it for decades,” he said. “We have a lot of people down who are like, ‘Hey, this is our family tradition.’
“It’s beautiful. You can walk away from there feeling like you’ve done your part to help bring a little Christmas cheer.”