Declining membership creates problems for Bradenton American Legion's funding of new roof

cnudi@bradenton.comJune 23, 2014 

MANATEE -- Founded in 1919, the American Legion Kirby Stewart Post No. 24 is one of the oldest veteran organizations in Florida.

At one time it also had the second-largest membership in the state.

But with World War II veterans dying, the local post, like most other veteran groups, has seen a two-thirds decline in membership over the last 10 years.

"In 2002, we had between 4,000 and 5,000 members," said Dick Alvarez, commander of Post No. 24. "Now we're down to 1,200."

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website, 1.2 million World War II veterans were still alive as of September 2013, and in June 2011 the average age was 92. In 2011, 550 WWII veterans died each day.

With declining membership comes a reduction in revenue, which made it difficult to provide veteran services and maintain facilities.

"This part of the building is from 1959-1960," Alvarez said while standing in the banquet room. "Over the years we kept adding on."

Now the post faces a $70,000 roof repair and needs $40,000 for three new air-conditioning units.

Knowing there would be fewer members, the American Legion created a corporation several years ago to open its dining room, lounge and arcade to the public to create revenue.

"Like most businesses, we do very well during the season," said Karen Mauriello, assistant to the finance officer. "But things slow down in the summer."

Mauriello said revenue is down 20 percent to 30 percent from five years ago.

"Plus the building is old and needs more maintenance," she said. "And everything is more expensive."

Alvarez said the dire need means turning to the public for help.

"We do a lot for the public," he said. "We do a Veterans Stand Down for the homeless and only 38 were veterans and 160 were not."

The Stand Down provides buses to the Legion, breakfast, medical and dental services, and supplies, such as sleeping bags, clothes, toiletries, and backpacks.

Veterans speak to a Veterans Administration staff person to see whether they are eligible for benefits.

The Legion also provides a color guard at the funeral of any veteran, Alvarez said.

"Then there are the school outreach programs where we teach the students about the flag and the personal stories of our members," he said.

Many American Legion posts are experiencing a decline in membership, but it is not typical for every post around the nation, said John Raughter, media spokesman for the National American Legion.

Raughter said the 2.4 million-member organization has had its ups and downs in membership growth, but many young veterans are joining.

"It's a mistake to look at one post struggling," he said. "Our membership ebbs and flows. It takes communication and outreach."

People tend to join when they are older, Raughter said.

When someone leaves the service they get a job or go to college and put off signing up for organizations, he said.

"But that's were we can help," Raughter said, "We can get them their GI benefits and you don't have to be a member."

For more information on how to help Post No. 24, call 941-794-3489.

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