Cleveland County has been working with American Legion Post 88, as well as other veterans organizations, to provide assistance to veterans and their families in applying for veterans benefits. Now, Cleveland County is investing $330,000 in American Rescue Plan monies to support building upgrades needed to continue and expand veterans services, including the American Legion Post 88 Food Pantry.
“When we got the notification that there were funds that were going to be available, the first thing I thought is, we’ve got to get this post something to help us out,” said Post Commander Ernest Martin. “This building was built in the 1930s by the WPA. We have wiring that’s not the best in the world. It still works, but it needs to be upgraded. We’ve got plumbing that needs to be upgraded.”
When COVID hit Oklahoma in 2020, the pandemic brought uncertainty, and Post 88 looked for ways to stay open when other service organizations were shutting down.
“I’ve been the commander here now for about 10 years,” Martin said. “We started hearing that other entities around the surrounding area that were helping veterans were closing their doors until COVID was over.”
Knowing the need was great, Martin and the American Legion Post 88 team looked for ways to stay open, even when they were short-handed.
“We went out and we bought masks, we bought hand sanitizer, we bought disinfectant and we sprayed the building down two or three times a day just to make sure we were killing everything, and we stayed open and helped,” Martin said.
In 2020, American Legion Post 88 was able to assist qualified veterans, service members and veteran families to receive more than $3 million in benefits. As the pandemic continued, in 2021 they helped our nation’s heroes and their families document their needs and receive more than $2 million in benefits, and, so far in 2022, that number is nearing $2.3 million.
American Legion Post 88 is funded by a portion of their annual dues, but that isn’t enough to cover the operating costs for the year.
“We would have bake sales, we would have dinners, we would have raffles, we would have all of these things to get extra money coming in, but it was never enough money for us to do major repairs and everything else we need for this building,” Martin said. “Post 88 has been around since 1919. We need to make sure it can be here to keep this place going. There’s never not going to be a veteran that needs help.”
The pandemic really brought home the need for a place where veterans and their families could find accredited service officers to walk them through the process of applying for benefits.
“I had notified our commander that we were essential in helping veterans at that time because the VA was working from home,” said Carl Ellison, senior veteran service officer. “One day we got a phone call from a lady. She was needing financial assistance because her husband died and there was no other organization that was open in Oklahoma that could help her. She saw in the Norman Magazine an article about us, and that we were open and doing business.”
During the initial 18 months of the pandemic, service officers at American Legion Post 88 saw 3,200 people and got a record $3.2 million for clients.
Veteran Eric Wilson is one of the people assisted by the work of Post 88, for which he and his wife are very grateful, he said.
“They got me that mental health help that I needed, and that was all due to my service officer here at the American Legion,” he said.
Wilson thanks Cleveland County commissioners for supporting American Legion Post 88 with ARPA funds.
“Hopefully these dollars can go to make this place even more viable as a community asset,” he said. “Better yet, maybe it can help even more veterans.”
Helping American Legion 88 and other veterans service organizations is a natural fit for Cleveland County. Since 2016, Cleveland County has been the only county in Oklahoma to have a veterans service coordinator. In each case, this position is held by a veteran. Both Jose Chavez, former county veterans service coordinator, and Charlie Neely, current county veterans service coordinator, assist other Post 88 service officers in providing assistance to veterans at the walk-in clinic on Monday mornings.
“We are there to assist Post 88 in their work,” Neely said. “They are truly making a difference in people’s lives.”
Judy Farris is a veteran family member who experienced first-hand the difference American Legion Post 88 is making. Farris learned about the work of American Legion Post 88 from a friend at work who had been helped.
“My father was a cook in the Army during the Korean War,” she explained.
Her father cared for his wife after she got dementia. When he died, Farris took on her mother’s care.
“I came in here and talked to Carl Ellison,” she said. She brought her father’s paperwork to document his service, and Ellison’s experience smoothed the way for receiving their qualifying benefits.
“He called me on a Monday morning and told me it had been approved,” she said.
Even with help from her daughter, Farris said caring for her mother was difficult because her mother could not be left alone. Those veteran benefits made a huge difference in her mother’s quality of care and in their family’s ability to provide appropriate assistance for her mother.
“Because my dad was in the Army during war time, my mom was able to get this aid and attendance because he was caring for her,” she said.
Farris was moved by Cleveland County’s investment in American Legion Post 88.
“Thank you from the bottom of my heart,” she said. “This building needs help, and it’s important they be able to keep helping people.”
Post 88 has helped qualified veterans, service members and veteran families receive more than $8 million in benefits since 2019.