Vermont Legion posts adapting to the pandemic

VERMONT AMERICAN LEGION Commander Ron LaRose of Bristol says social distancing because of the coronavirus pandemic has hurt Legion posts, though Addison County posts are financially strong enough to weather this storm.

It takes away from socializing. That’s what the lounge is all about. People go there to talk about the wars they won or lost. They talk about fishing, hunting, other events that come to mind. It’s been difficult limiting that.
— Ron LaRose

ADDISON COUNTY — As is the case with all nonprofit organizations, American Legion posts locally and statewide have had to take steps to continue to fulfill their mission during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Department of Vermont American Legion Commander Ron LaRose, a member of Bristol Post 19, described that mission in an interview: “We’re in the business of helping veterans young and old, and taking care of the youth in our community.”
There’s no question the pandemic has compromised the ability of the state’s 42 Legion posts to provide their customary level of charitable support to host communities, particularly youth programs; to continue to be a stable part of many of their members’ social lives; and even to recruit and retain members.
Holiday barbecues were called off. Post lounges were first shuttered and are now, like other hospitality businesses, limited by pandemic regulations. Legion support for summer baseball was called off. 
Post events that encourage and preserve membership — LaRose said membership is the Legion’s backbone — have been scaled back. 
LaRose said this area’s posts — Vergennes Post 14, Middlebury Post 27 and Brandon Post 55 as well as his own Post 19 — are among the healthiest in the state and should emerge from the far side of COVD-19 in decent shape. 
But he remains worried about smaller posts with fewer members and less of a financial base, given the revenue lost from shuttered lounges and canceled events. 
“The Middleburys, the Bristols, the Vergennes, Barre, Montpelier, they’ve done well. They’ve got money in the bank. They can survive for a period of time,” LaRose said.
Still, he added, “If we can’t take the money in, we can’t give the money out. The towns our size and bigger will still be able to manage most of the way, but the smaller communities, they’ll be struggling to find $250 to send a boy to Boys’ State.”

Locally, LaRose said, posts have adjusted spending priorities to make sure they can maintain their support for veterans and their host communities to the greatest extent possible. 
“I’m sure that each one of us probably had a small project. They were planning to renovate, fix, repair, add on. It’s all put on hold. We’re making sure our income matches our outgo, and we’re not going to shortchange those activities we normally support,” he said.
Still, members at each post have made some difficult choices.
“Where they normally give away $100, maybe they’ll give away $50 to $75,”  LaRose said.
For example in Bristol, LaRose said, “everybody and anybody comes to us,” and even as a healthier-than-most post its officials are having to say no, or offer a qualified yes, more often.
“Some (requests) are not honored, some are honored, and some are more than honored. It depends on what it is. And, of course, veterans first and youth second, and then we go on from there,” he said.
With the lounges closed and now limited, LaRose acknowledged the social cost: Many members are missing the camaraderie that was an important part of their lives.
LaRose said the COVID restrictions now in place not only restrict how many can enter post lounges, but also discourage mingling among members once they enter, thus rendering the social value of gathering less meaningful.
“If you come in as a pair, you as a pair can sit at a table. But if you come in as an individual, and a buddy comes in 15 or 20 minutes later, and another buddy a half-hour after that, I think technically you can’t sit together. You can sit within shouting distance, but you can’t sit at the same table,” LaRose said.
“It takes away from socializing. That’s what the lounge is all about. People go there to talk about the wars they won or lost. They talk about fishing, hunting, other events that come to mind. It’s been difficult limiting that.”

The fact that many Legion members, including LaRose by his own admission, are in the age group that is most vulnerable to COVID-19 remains a broad concern for Legion officials.
LaRose said Legion officials are worried about older members who are now housebound because of fear of contracting COVID-19, as well as senior residents in general. Legion members in Bristol, the county and around the state are making an effort to reach out to them — in person if possible. 
“I encourage every post in every community to check, not only their older relatives, but their senior citizens in their community, to include veterans, to make sure they’ve got what they need,” he said. 
And as is the case in many organizations, such as the Lions and Rotary clubs, the Legion leadership is facing the challenge of a graying membership and lower numbers overall.
LaRose described a typical large Legion gathering.
“You go to a conference or a convention and you look around the room, and there’s a lot of walkers and wheelchairs,” he said.
LaRose said statewide Legion membership peaked at almost 19,000 a number of years ago, but might dip below 10,000 next year. 
LaRose described membership as the “lifeblood” of the organization. More members means more volunteers, more dues, more people in the lounges, more lobbying power on behalf of veterans, and more money for veterans and youth programs.
Now, for example, LaRose said, the Legion is working to protect the health care rights of veterans who were exposed to toxic burn pits in the Iraq, Afghanistan and Southeast Asian theaters.
The Legion has taken steps, such as opening up membership to anyone who has served honorably in the past 80 years, not just to those who served during conflicts. 
But the pandemic is hampering recruitment and retention efforts. Posts typically have offered “early bird” dinner parties, free October meals for those who pay their membership dues for the following year. 
In Bristol, that has meant a prime-rib dinner and a chance to gather, in LaRose’s words, for conversation “and a couple of pops.”
This year Post 27 offered meatloaf to go as its early bird special. LaRose said it was a good meal, but that “prime rib was the main attraction,” and it wasn’t the same event without the same food and fun. 
LaRose made a pitch for veterans to consider membership in the American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars. 
“The money you pay for your membership helps veterans’ programs,” LaRose said. “It helps take care of people that have got some issues.” 

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