DIGBY & FREEPORT, N.S. – Faced with rising costs and shrinking revenues, two area legions each decided a few years ago it was time to reinvent their space – time to let the music play and the supper series begin.
Less than five years ago, Royal Canadian Legion Branch 20 in Digby was facing possible closure. Current president Donna Flaherty said she landed in Digby nine years ago and signed on to the secretary role at the legion in 2013. When the time came for the annual elections of their executive in 2014, she was asked to be president.
“Our balance was at zero and nobody wanted their name on the president’s list as being the one who closed the branch down,” Flaherty said. “I was an outsider, so they figured it didn’t matter as much to me. Basically, I was told, ‘Don’t worry about it. We have enough money for six months and then we’ll be closed.’”
But that didn’t sit well with her.
“My response was ‘I’ll take on the position, but I’m not giving up. I’m not closing it,’” Flaherty remembers saying. She describes her first year in her role as “messy.”
“Coming in from the outside you don’t know all the players, all the history,” Flaherty said.
She had to build a solid group of volunteers she could rely on and it was through that core group of five that the legion began to be reinvented. Flaherty said the new people brought new knowledge – like how to apply for grants – delivered new energy around events and dreamed up new ideas for the space.
A NEW IDEA
Flaherty had been delivering community suppers on Friday nights for about three years and was just breaking even. But then one of her fab five volunteers came up with the idea of the music jam. The idea went to their general assembly for a vote and it passed. That was just over two years ago and that event quickly became their salvation.
“If it wasn’t for the jam, we would have closed,” Flaherty said. “It’s kept the doors open for the last two years.”
The music jam is held every second Tuesday and regularly attracts 18 to 20 musicians and up to 150 people in the audience. While the legion asks for a freewill offering at the door, they also hold a 50/50 draw and it’s those funds that have helped the legion survive.
They also now host a Chase the Ace, weekly bingo events and darts, an annual New Year’s levee and they just held a well-attended New Year’s Eve dance. Flaherty would love to hold more events, but she says she can’t do that without having more volunteers to help out, and she hopes people will begin to understand that the legion has changed.
“Many people still think we’re just about the bar downstairs or that you have to have a membership to come here,” Flaherty said. She added that there might have been a day when the bar helped create funds, but it no longer even sustains itself.
Funds from Chase the Ace helped them put in a new floor in their upstairs hall while shared grant funds and poppy fund money helped renovate the upstairs bathrooms to make them wheelchair accessible.
Volunteers helped paint the big upstairs room, giving it a fresh feel, and the renovations mean the hall now has a capacity of 200 people. A new grant that they’ll receive soon will help them refurbish their kitchen counters and cupboards, but Flaherty says they are still seeking funds for a dishwasher and a new roof.
While they’ve kept the doors open in the last few years with their new events, Flaherty said the need for financial and volunteer support continues to be great.
“I want people to know the legion is here for the community, but at the same time, the community needs to be here for the legion – we need it to go both ways,” Flaherty said. “And you don’t have to be a legion member to volunteer and you don’t have to volunteer for everything.”
Flaherty believes they’re on the right track with their new events that are engaging the community, but they still have a long way to go toward any sort of financial security.
“We want to be able to help the community, our veterans and their families as much as we can, but if we’re not here we can’t do that,” Flaherty said. “I’d love to be able to say, ‘You’ve got the hall for the day for a benefit for somebody’, but we can only do that when we’re in a financial position that is stable and when we’re able to sustain ourselves.”
THE STORY IN FREEPORT
In Freeport, Long Island, Royal Canadian Legion Carpiquet Branch 92 president Robert Thurber said his legion was in similar dire straits a few years ago.
“It was getting to the point where we were hoping to make enough each month to pay the power bill and there were many times when we didn’t think that was even possible,” Thurber said.
Thurber said the turning point for them was when a member suggested they run a Chase the Ace.
“We did very, very well with that,” Thurber said. “So well in fact that the renovations on our building were just finished last month and we basically now have a brand new building.”
Those renovations were helped along by a matching federal Canada 150 grant through the Community Infrastructure Program delivered by the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency. But Thurber said it took some new members and a new bar/entertainment manager to deliver some fresh ideas to his legion.
“We do still have some serving veterans here, but not many of them, it’s the public who are joining us now,” he added.
Thurber said one of his members had just shared a story with him from an East Vancouver newspaper that talked about how its legion was still for vets during the day but was turned into a nightclub or tavern after dark.
“We’ve all had to adjust with the times,” Thurber said. “Whether we’re in rural settings or urban, legions across the country have had to reinvent themselves.”
Thurber said he thinks his legion has done a good job of melding the old with the new.
“We’ve made it a more welcoming atmosphere,” he said. “People drop in now to play a game of pool, play a game of cards, we now have washer toss games once a week. We’ve also had karaoke or dining experiences or kitchen parties.”
But then, Thurber said, a key organizer stepped aside, and that’s when designer Katherine Feiel stepped into the role of entertainment co-ordinator and bar manager.
“She has done such a phenomenal job and the volunteers she’s brought in are amazing,” Thurber said. “They’ve come up with some really good ideas – they’re fresh and they’re new – like the 40s murder mystery they put on in the fall. Everyone was in costume, everyone had parts to play and that went over really, really well. It’s stuff like that that have breathed new life into the legion.”
Thurber said it’s all about finding the right balance.
“We are still very respectful of our veterans and everything they’ve done for us but we need to be a little more relaxed now,” Thurber said. “We really had to diversify in order to survive. Back in the 90s, we were just a legion. People came, they talked, they had a drink and then they went home. Now we have a place where people come out and enjoy themselves – they socialize, they gamble, they eat, everybody has a good time. People I haven’t seen at the legion in years started coming back when we brought in Chase the Ace. It really brought us out of our doldrums.”
Besides the murder mystery, the Freeport team has held a Christmas dance, a Santa brunch and more karaoke evenings. But Thurber said Feiel and her team of volunteers now have dreamed up a more elegant, four-week supper series.
“Tickets will go in a flash,” Thurber said. “And what better thing to do on a weekend than get out for a nice meal and good conversation, have a glass of wine and relax with dinner by candlelight.”
The Saturday supper series features a weekly menu starting Jan. 27 and going until Feb. 17. Local chefs Katherine and Markus Feiel, Taren Yelle and Lavena and Stanton Crocker will take over the Freeport legion kitchen for each of the first three weeks serving up three-course meals from their creative menus with the themes of Around the World Fare, Marvelous Mexicasian and Downhome Goodness.
For the final week, all of the chefs will work together to prepare a Sweetheart Supper, a four-course dinner by candlelight, and during the evening volunteers will read from letters of love from soldiers to their sweethearts or families. Reservations are required for all meals.
“It’s a really unique idea,” Thurber said. “I don’t know if other legions are doing things like this, but if they’re not, they should be. You just have to have that one or two or 10 individuals who are willing to organize it and get it done.”
Thurber said he is filled with optimism about the legion’s future.
“It seemed like there for awhile, as it got closer to winter, we’d say this will be the year the door is going to shut, but somehow we managed to hang on,” Thurber said. “You’ve got to be open to new ideas and you’ve got to try things out and go with what works. Personally, I can’t wait to see what Katherine and the others are going to come up with next.”