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Buckling under a pandemic hit, veteran groups learn new ways to stay afloat

The Lawrence Meler Tate VFW Post 39 moved to its present location in 1944.

SCOTT KEELER/TAMPA BAY TIMES

By ILEANA NAJARRO | Tampa Bay Times, St. Petersburg, Fla. | Published: September 21, 2020

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 39 in St. Petersburg has learned the importance of building up a rainy-day fund — the hard way.

For several months, veteran organizations across Tampa Bay and the state lost out on traditional revenue streams, including alcohol sales from their canteens, because of coronavirus safety restrictions. Post 39, which didn’t have much savings to begin with, risked losing its building because it couldn’t pay utility bills and other overhead costs, according to post commander Janice Pettit.

“If we’re not able to raise money, then this safe haven for veterans, this post that cares for veterans when no else does, will close for good," said an online GoFundMe page the post created to raise funds. The page was later closed by their state commander because of VFW regulations.

VFW Post 10174 in St. Petersburg also initially tried a GoFundMe page to help prevent it from closing.

The VFW and American Legion have long faced the challenge of recruiting younger veterans into their membership, national spokesmen said. And they have needed to improve their connections with their local communities so they can host successful fundraisers for their charity efforts.

The pandemic highlighted how vital these efforts are for the groups’ continued survival, the spokesmen said.

A community fundraiser on Sept. 5 to help save Post 39 from closure netted enough to pay off bills for the rest of the year, Pettit said.

Glen Tilley, state commander for the VFW, said Florida didn’t lose any of its 161 posts over the past few months, but he’s encouraging them to stock their savings accounts. The state has about 55,000 VFW members, he said.

At the national level, the VFW plans to create one-time grants that posts can apply for in October to help with expenses such as paying rent for their buildings, said national spokesman Terrance Hayes.

Before the pandemic, national leaders were encouraging posts to think differently about their programming, including hosting more family-oriented events. The pandemic ended those plans, however, as large gatherings and events were no longer possible, he said.

So posts had to get creative. One Florida post sold to-go meals from its restaurant, Tilley said, and made $6,000 from BBQ and chicken sales.

For the American Legion, the pandemic helped to push the organization into the 21st century, said Rick Johnson, commander of the 300 Legion posts in Florida.

Meetings and training have gone online, and pick-up orders have helped to keep fundraising going. The Legion has about 102,500 members in Florida, he said.

But Johnson remains concerned about the fate of some of his posts. Some have worked out arrangements with power and gas companies to pay utility bills in smaller percentages, he said. But others that were struggling before the pandemic and didn’t have these community connections were hit harder.

“Some posts are doing well, some posts aren’t doing as well as they should be,” Johnson said.

Two Legion posts in Hillsborough County may not last long, according to Florida District 15 commander Bruce Carl, who added that they had limited income to begin with.

Commanders of the Legion and VFW hope the governor’s recent opening of bars to alcohol sales, even at 50 percent capacity, can help posts make up lost revenue.

At the local, state and national level, recruiting new Legion members also remains key.

“Our biggest problem right now is to get younger veterans involved in our organization,” Johnson said.

To helping with the recruitment effort, Congress passed a federal law last year that expanded American Legion membership eligibility to any veteran who has served honorably since Dec. 7, 1941, said John Raughter, deputy director of media relations for the group. Previously, only veterans who served during designated wartime periods were eligible.

This means about 4.2 million additional veterans can now join, and the organization is reaching out to them.

At the national level, the VFW has been educating younger veterans on services it can provide, such as help with Department of Veterans Affairs claims, said Hayes. They’ve also sent members to volunteer at activities on military installations where they can connect with future veterans.

Local posts are working to retain existing members through phone check-ins and regular emails, Tilley said.

At VFW Post 39, commander Pettit has kept her members involved by having them volunteer to renovate their building, work that continues today.

“It gives them a place to go and a purpose,” she said.

©2020 the Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.)
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Janice Pettit, left, commander, Lawrence Meler Tate VFW Post 39, St. Petersburg, and Wanda Negron, post member, work on renovations at the post, Friday, September 18, 2020.
SCOTT KEELER/TAMPA BAY TIMES