|Vietnam Veterans of America|
Tucked away near the rural Eastern Seaboard, Biddeford, Maine, Chapter 1044 welcomes its members in the lower level of American Legion Post 26 on Elm Street. The space contains a kitchen, small library, television, tables and chairs, along with a chair lift and meeting space that holds approximately fifty.
Chapter 1044 is the last holdout in a state that formerly boasted five VVA chapters. A once-thriving chapter that in 2019 received a national award for membership growth, its leaders now find themselves struggling to maintain member engagement and attendance at meetings.
Chapter 1044 currently has approximately 185 members, with 75 of them local. Before the pandemic, monthly meetings usually drew 8-20 members, according to Chapter Secretary Michael Gibney, who served in the Air Force in 1972-75, including a year at Udorn AFB. Now, he says, they are “lucky to get one member outside of the board members” to attend face-to-face meetings. “We are literally a dying organization,” he said in a tone that was equal parts melancholy and matter of fact.
Gibney hopes the pandemic is responsible for the dip in turnout, and not, as he puts it, “a lack of give-a-shit.” During the most recent election, the current board was reinstalled because no new candidates were nominated and no one expressed interest in running for the positions when the notice was sent out.
When Conrad Letellier—he served with Fox 2/26 Marines as a machine gunner during Tet—became Membership chair, the chapter had just under a hundred members. The chapter receives a list of at-large members each month, and Letellier reached out to them, asking if they would consider transferring their membership to the Biddeford chapter. Through those efforts, Chapter 1044 was able to add 10-15 new members each month for a time, which led to the national membership growth award.
Letellier, now also serving as chapter president, continues his recruitment efforts despite the pandemic but says the responses have dwindled considerably. He knows a large part of revitalizing the chapter will be getting members more active in the meetings. He plans to send a letter to them “to find out the main reason they stopped coming, and if there is anything we can do to help them to start coming again.”
Membership meetings are monthly and board meetings every other month. As COVID restrictions lift and warmer temperatures prevail, both Gibney and Letellier are hopeful things will pick up.
“I wish there was a magic word I could say as far as getting people coming back to meetings,” Letellier says. “We are doing our best to stay positive,” while exploring ways to increase attendance at meetings in a changed world where people might not be so keen on mingling closely with others. Letellier admits that, even after having both vaccine shots, he is still proceeding with caution.
Changing to a hybrid meeting format with the option to attend remotely is a possibility. That would allow participation by out-of-town members who cannot make the drive, as well as those who may not be ready for face-to-face interactions. He is circumspect when it comes to investing in web-based infrastructure to host the meetings, especially if not enough members are interested in using Zoom. The board also is discussing whether to change the meeting schedule in their charter to make it more enticing to members. Letellier is busy polling members to gauge interest in both approaches. “Anything to help bring the people back,” he said. “We’re willing to try anything.”
The chapter stays well-funded. The primary fundraiser is the home-cooked soup and sandwich lunch special held every Saturday at the chapter’s meeting space. During the pandemic, this was limited to take-out only. Since most other fundraising events have been canceled due to the pandemic, Letellier says, “That’s our only moneymaker right now.”
It has been more difficult to get people to come out for the once-popular event, and it’s usually the same people every week. During the summer, they hope to attract more people by moving the event outdoors whenever possible. Even with waning attendance, Letellier says, “After all the expenses, we still make money.”
To conserve resources, the chapter’s leadership decided to cut advertising for the Saturday lunches, because the benefit did not outweigh the cost. Instead, they rely on social media and word of mouth and the occasional special ad.
Careful financial management allows the chapter to provide services to veterans. “We’re there to help out our brothers and sisters,” says Letellier, noting that they do their best to not turn anyone away. The chapter provides food or assistance with other basic needs. Over the winter of 2019-20 they helped several people get through the long Maine freeze by paying for 100 gallons of heating oil for each. All they ask is that recipients provide verification that they are veterans.
Letellier knows firsthand the benefits of being involved in VVA, and he speaks of his fellow members with deep respect and admiration. “We have a good core of people, we all get along, we kid around, and we all have each other’s backs.” He credits the support from others in the group as pivotal in his own personal development. “They have helped me come out of my shell quite a bit,” he says. “If you would have told me four years ago that I’d be president of the chapter, I would have said you’re crazy.” But with the support of fellow members, “I’ve built a lot of confidence in myself.”
In addition to his leadership roles within Chapter 1044 as President and Membership Chair, Letellier recently became a certified Service Officer for DAV. He laughs and says, “I’m quite busy.” When he speaks, his passion is evident: “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do—helping other veterans. I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do, so that makes me happy. Giving back all I can. We’re trying to treat today’s vets better than the way we were treated when we came home.”
Letellier wants all veterans to feel welcome and supported at Chapter 1044. To that end he has begun to reach out to veterans incarcerated because, he says, “they are entitled to some of the same benefits.”
For a time, Chapter 1044’s space was open every day as a rec center for veterans to drop in and chat, read a book, play games, grab a bite to eat, or just get away from the outside world. Turnout dropped off even before the pandemic, and now it is open only on Tuesday and Thursdays. However, if someone needs help on any day, they are just a phone call away.
“I hate to keep using COVID as an excuse,” Letellier says. “There is a reason why the other four chapters in Maine closed. We are trying to stay open as long as possible. We are trying. We’re not giving up yet.”
In these uncertain times, the future of the chapter is unknown, but Conrad Letellier and the other board members are firmly resolved to keep going. “We can just take it one day at a time,” he says. “With the Lord’s blessing, we stay above ground.”
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