The following article was originally published on New Lenox Patch on Dec. 8. It was recently featured on The Huffington Post as part of its Dispatches series, which collects stories about the changing American Dream.
The walls of New Lenox’s American Legion post are decorated with history and collections—old photos of members, license plates from other posts and the like—but in the back, a small poster sarcastically states, “How to Kill a Post!”
The best way? Failure to participate in the post. And having recently been on the brink of its own death, Tom E. Hartung Post 1977 is calling for more participation from its members and the community than ever before.
Facing a financial mess after building a new banquet hall, the Legion has put an emphasis on cutting costs and increasing revenue, primarily through the renovation that set the organization back a couple hundred thousand dollars. On Veterans Day, the Legion officially launched an outreach campaign to raise money for the post and get the community more involved.
“Businesses are having a hard time, individuals are having a hard time. I think veterans organizations are no different,” member Dion Scaglione said. “This is to push us past the hump so we can continue to honor veterans and keep the legion as viable and energetic as it has been.”
"We're trying our damnedest to keep the doors open."
— Legion Commander Paul Chen
The Legion finished building an 8,200-square-foot banquet hall last year and opened the entire thing in August, mostly renting it for private parties, weddings and other events. The $1.5 million project is already bringing in extra revenue for the post, but an unexpected cost during construction put the project over budget and the post in a hole.
The post planned to run a sewer line down one road but was eventually told the line needed to go in a different direction. The additional engineering, land negotiations and construction cost another $250,000, running the Legion’s debt to $400,000, Commander Paul Chen said.
Part of the financial predicament can be blamed on how the Legion handled finances. Members had almost no insight into the post's financial position.
“We owed a lot of people a lot of money,” Chen said. “There were old bills stuffed in drawers that we had no idea about. But we’re paying our bills now.”
The impact wasn’t immediately seen by the community, however. By and large the American Legion continued to provide various community events, such as hosting the Vietnam Moving Wall memorial in May, and still donated to veterans charities.
Chen took over as commander this summer and immediately got three members to volunteer to handle the finances. He says they’ve already cut $58,000 in costs and increased revenue 70 percent, mostly thanks to the banquet hall rentals.
A Life of Service Continued
At 5 a.m. most mornings, Chen can be found mopping the floors in the banquet hall. Member Mike Brooks is one of many who comes in every morning to clean the legion. The sacrifices and volunteerism of the members helped the post make the $58,000 in cuts in just a few months. These veterans are used to hard work and service.
"We are the maintenance crew, the grounds crew, the door-fixers," Chen said. "I retired last year, and I’ve spent more time here than I did in a year of work. We’re trying our damnedest to keep the doors open."
The Legion eliminated salaries for various positions, including the finance director, and also scaled back use of professional landscapers and cleaners. Instead, members volunteer to mow the lawn or clean the floors.
A lot of members are trades workers, so they’ve also helped install light fixtures and donated time in other ways. After parties, veterans and volunteers clean and reset the banquet hall.
"This is nothing new or unique," Scaglione said. "Our service didn’t end when we came back home."
The banquet hall has helped boost revenue by 70 percent, Chen said, but it could take another 70 percent to pay off the mortgage. He said the Legion needs to show financial progress every month to appease the bank.
The community outreach campaign should help bring in more money, but the Legion doesn’t have a specific fundraising goal. Some of the money will help the post financially, but some will be donated to groups like Wounded Warriors or programs to help teach students about government.
Outreach in the Home of Proud Americans
American Legion and VFW posts across the country are facing uncertain futures because of declining membership resulting from dwindling World War II veterans and a lack of new Post-9/11 members.
But that’s not a problem in New Lenox, the self-titled “Home of Proud Americans.” This is a community that rallies around veterans, and that’s reflected in the way the Legion welcomes home people who have served. When Scaglione and his wife, Cheryl, came back from Afghanistan they were greeted at the legion with a row of American flags and a big party in the banquet hall. He credits the homecoming party as the reason he joined the post.
“This community lends itself to building the future of the American Legion,” member Ray Garza said.
With great community support and the community outreach campaign, the legion is well-positioned to rebound. The popularity of the banquet hall is growing quickly, with December booked and some dates already filling for next year.
The post isn’t just a place where veterans sit around drinking beer or playing cards. More and more, it’s becoming a spot for the community to gather, whether it’s for the karaoke nights, Bears tailgates or the Thanksgiving dinner the post offered this year.
Other events, such as craft shows and pancake breakfasts, could become part of the outreach campaign, post historian Deb Jones said. The campaign will also create events that can help highlight veterans in the community and teach residents about the post.
“By bringing the public in, it gets them appreciating the hall and what we offer,” she said.
The campaign will officially end on Memorial Day, but a golf outing and dinner will cap the events next June. In the meantime, the Legion will be promoting its events and invites the public just to stop in, have a beer and support the post.
"It has a rich history and we want to continue that," Scaglione said.
Want to rent the banquet hall? Call the post at 815-485-4651.