By: Steve B. Brooks
As recently as 2009, American Legion Town of Wallkill Post 1181 in the Orange County, N.Y., hamlet of Middletown had slipped to eight members and was in fear of losing its charter. But that wasn’t going to happen on Post Commander Alfred Masker’s watch.
Masker, a 40-year Legionnaire and the post commander since 1982, helped lead a membership campaign that quickly got the post back up to more than 15 members. And from there, momentum gathered. In the past two years, Post 1181 has grown its membership rolls by more than 300 percent, surpassing a total membership in excess of 70 members – including five currently serving on active duty in the military.
Masker has worked alongside Vincent “Jim” Scali, Post 1181’s first vice commander, and Legionnaire Bob Hayward of nearby Post 151. The trio used tools provided by myLegion.org and took advantage of regular communication with current and potential members to sustain the growth.
Hayward had no problem helping another post with its membership efforts. “It didn’t matter which post you belonged to,” he said. “It’s just that you belong to The American Legion – trying to build the strength of the Legion and reinforce what it’s done all these years.”
Masker said he politely, but emphatically, declined overtures to close the post. He and Scali set a goal of boosting membership to 50 by 2013. “The first thing I did was contact all my friends who I know are veterans,” Scali said. “It brought us eight members just canvassing my friends.”
In stepped Hayward, who shared the value of using myLegion.org with Scali. Through myLegion.org, posts, counties and districts can search for veterans whose memberships have lapsed or are members of the department headquarters post. The group also started going to the county tax office to identify veterans receiving a tax exemption. Using both resources, they were able to make a list of prospective members and start contacting them.
“We did a lot of mailings and got some returns,” Hayward said. “But the best source is myLegion.org. Jim was the spearhead. I provided the leads in the early days, but Jim is the guy that did the closing.”
Scali said he also took advantage of recent state legislation that allows individual school districts to vote on whether or not to give local veterans tax exemptions. “We wanted to contact those veterans so we could get them to show up in numbers (at school board meetings),” he said. “In the course of the conversation, I’d ask them if they were a member of a veterans group. I was able to pick up 16 veterans (in two months) doing that.”
That’s just one example of Scali’s work ethic, said Orange County Membership Chairman Tony Pegg. “It’s very important to have a plan in place,” he said. “(But) a passive plan doesn’t really work. Reaching out to the veterans in the community is very important. People like Jim make my job much easier because they do go out and do that.”
To keep members engaged, Scali sends out a monthly newsletter with a list of post activities and a welcome to new members – and with a personal note on every newsletter. That engagement is key.
“When you get a member in, you don’t just grab their name and their card,” Orange County Commander Jerry Oser Sr. said. “You want to give them a job. Make them feel that they’re giving as much as what they’re getting in return to make them a part of The American Legion family.”
And the family aspect is emphasized – not just at Post 1181, but throughout Orange County. “We let them know about our Children & Youth programs,” said Paul Oser Sr., Jerry’s brother and the county’s vice commander. “Last year Orange County sent 32 boys to Boys State. They do scholarships. They do talks in schools. We’re getting more community-minded.”
The membership success is contagious. “This also energizes the rest of the county,” Jerry said. “It’s not just one post. Jim and Al and Bob will go to other posts and help them.
“The county put together a five-year membership plan, and everyone (supported it). Jim followed that five-year plan to the hilt. That was the main reason (for success): his persistence, as well as Al’s, with Bob’s help. This is a community thing. To get (what) we need, everyone needs to get involved.”
On the brink of losing its charter, Post 1181 now has more than 30 members attending its monthly meetings. It’s a far cry from the dark days.
“When I first joined the post, we could have the meeting at this table,” Scali said, pointing at a kitchen table pressed to seat six. “And there’d be an empty chair.”