One of Emporia’s proudest distinctions is that it is the Founding City of Veterans Day.
Like many around the nation, in 2019 the Emporia VFW Post 1980 will celebrate the 65th anniversary of the holiday, which honors all military veterans. But this year has brought on a new set of challenges for the service club which was a part of the community long before Veterans Day was recognized nationwide.
The last year has brought on a dire financial situation, and now the club is hoping the support of the community will help keep its doors open.
It started in January, according to Post 1980 Commander Mike White, when he took over the books for the club at 932 Graphic Arts Road.
“I found some letters from the Internal Revenue Service,” White, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, said.
At the time, the club was looking at $11,000 in fines, penalties and fees for, among other things, not filling out the appropriate documents with the IRS. That number has now reached $20,000 as the club has struggled to get ahead in order to pay off the debt.
VFW Auxiliary member Gloria Schneider has spearheaded an entertainment committee in the months since. The group has organized dances and other events at the club to serve as fundraisers, but there is still a long way to go; and White said they are approaching a “make-it-or-break-it” situation.
“We’ve been able to pay the bills — keep the lights on, keep our staff paid,” he said. “That has really helped make ends meet, but we still have not really been able to put it toward paying off the debt.”
The VFW will host a fundraiser dance featuring the band Just Passin’ Through on Nov. 9 and has another event planned for Nov. 23. The club will also host the annual ham and bean dinner on Veterans Day, Nov. 11. Some community members have stepped up and made large donations, while others have contributed to a “Save the VFW” jar at the club. The club can also be rented out for events such as birthday and graduation parties for $350 for non-members and $100 for members. It features a full kitchen, which is available to use for an extra $50.
The active members of the club are grateful for the contributions they have already received, but to them, it is much more than just a place to go for a dance or a party. It is a place to go for support and fellowship.
“I’ve been coming here ever since I was little,” said Joshua Perry, a Marine Corps. veteran who served in Afghanistan. “Because of my grandparents, it’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I joined the Marine Corps. and I joined (the VFW) as I soon as I got back. It’s a safe haven.”
Perry’s grandfather, Ron Brockelman — who served two tours in Vietnam with the U.S. Army Special Forces — said for several years the club struggled to bring in younger members. While that has changed some in recent years, he said they could always use more; particularly those who will be active at the club.
In his late 20s, White is the youngest commander in the 89-year history of the club. He said bringing in younger veterans and helping them see the benefits of joining the VFW was a priority from the start.
“I was head of the Student Veterans Association [at Emporia State University] and I asked some of the other members what outreach we had done with the VFW or the American Legion in town,” White said. “They said, ‘We’ve never talked with them,’ so I said, ‘Lets do it.’ I met with Ron and some of the other people here and said, ‘What do you need?’”
Schneider said the service clubs have often been perceived as being “for older people,” but that stereotype isn’t true. She said the club is for everyone who has served, regardless of their age.
White attributes some of the reasoning for younger people not wanting to join service clubs to technology. But, though it might be easier to keep in touch with like-minded people through social media, he said it does not measure up to the camaraderie of being a part of a group like the VFW.
“When Ron came back from Vietnam, this was the place to come to share stories and get together with people who had many of the same experiences as him,” White said. “Now we have Facebook. I can talk to the guys who were in my unit from anywhere in the world. You can have all the Facebook conversations you want, but there’s nothing like coming in here and sharing stories with people who have very similar experiences as I do from all different time periods.”
“It’s a brotherhood,” Brockelman added.
Though social media can also benefit the club. White said one of the ways people who may not be able to donate to the VFW or attend one of their events can share it on Facebook to help get the word out.
If that’s not your thing, Brockelman said people can always “just come out and buy cheap drinks.”
It isn’t only veterans who benefit from the VFW, either.
The VFW and American Legion Post 5 take turns organizing the Veterans Day Parade, an immense undertaking which White said takes three or four months worth of planning and organization. Post 1980 and its Auxiliary team up with with Emporia Main Street to put together care packages for active duty military members serving overseas. They help go through essays written by local school children and are involved with several civic projects throughout the year.
“We do what we can, when we can, where we can,” White said.
Just Passin’ Through will play from 8 p.m. - midnight Nov. 9 at the VFW Post 1980. Entry is $10 and the public is invited. Find the group on Facebook by searching “Lowry-Funston VFW Post 1980 Emporia Kansas” to find out about future events and opportunities to help. To inquire about renting the venue, contact 342-9864.
“We’re scrambling,” White said. “But if we didn’t have the support that we have out here, we wouldn’t even be able to scramble.”