|Vietnam Veterans of America|
Southwestern Pennsylvania Chapter 862 is the state’s largest VVA chapter and third largest in the U.S., with a long and distinguished track record of attracting and keeping members. Chapter President Larry Googins (also the incoming Pennsylvania State Council President) said it all comes down to how well a chapter can garner public attention—and then hold on to it.
“We know you can’t just hold meetings and expect anything to take off,” said Googins. “A chapter needs to tell people that it’s there, and then keep reminding them. We’ve done that by sponsoring activities, participating in community events, and doing things that help others in the community in one way or another. Our informal goal is at least one event a month. This approach supports VVA’s overall objectives—and it also pays off by increasing membership.”
Chapter 862 had some 40 members when it received its VVA charter in 2000. “Growing the membership has been a major objective for us from the beginning and has remained a front-and-center effort. We set a goal from 2010 on that we would try for 50 new members a year. By 2015 we’d gained 240 members, so not quite 50 a year but very close. We currently have around 850 members.”
So how does Chapter 862 do it? According to Googins, there are no secrets to successful recruiting. “Basically, we do anything and everything we can to bring in members and keep them involved.”
If community outreach is a key driver of their recruiting success, what does this look like in action? “Lots of things,” Googins said, “but one particular thing we do is very simple, no planning required. If one of us sees a guy somewhere wearing a Vietnam veterans hat in Walmart or just out around town, our member will introduce himself and find out if the person is already a member. If not, we invite him to join. If he says no, we invite him to a meeting. We’ve found that if an individual comes to even a single meeting, the success rate in enlisting that person as a member is better than 90 percent.”
Many chapter members carry VVA membership applications with them. “We try to be ready to offer the application to vets we speak with,” said Googins. “I keep ten in my car at all times. We also have a chapter business card we hand out and ask folks to check us out online.”
Googins said that while the “random encounter” approach has been and remains one of the chapter’s more successful ways of bringing in new members, there is a busy calendar of events as well. Googins ticked through just some of them: manning booths at the local Maple Syrup Festival and Support Our Troops Rally; marching in Memorial Day and Veterans Day parades; giving talks in schools; doing outreach to local ROTC units; sponsoring an annual banquet for Gold Star mothers; and holding a community picnic every summer. “We also publish a monthly newsletter that goes out to local VA facilities and VFW and American Legion posts.”
The chapter wraps up its year with a Christmas Vigil. “It’s at the Beaver County Vietnam Veterans Memorial,” Googins said. “We start at noon on the 24th and carry through until noon on Christmas Day. We put up a big Christmas tree and have several members at a time on duty. We honor the 73 veterans that Beaver County lost in Vietnam, along with four MIAs.” Googins said that it’s not only a time of remembrance, but an opportunity to talk with people about the war and its cost. “Inevitably we’ll have a few Vietnam vets happen by, and very often they’ll join the chapter.”
Googins acknowledged that membership growth will eventually begin to fall. “We all understand that our chapter—and VVA—is not sustainable over time as we all continue to age and fade, but for now and the foreseeable future Chapter 862 is alive and well. We’ll keep doing what we have done, maintain our active presence in the community, and keep supporting the VVA mission.”
Even as VVA faces an aging membership, Googins described a moment that always reminds him of why he joined himself and what keeps him engaged and enthusiastic. It’s the reception for first-timers at a Chapter 862 meeting.
“We ask new veterans to introduce themselves. Just a few words, what branch they served in, what they did in the service. And then everybody in the room says, in unison: Welcome Home. The impact of those two words is magic. Vets feel welcomed and know they are among their own. It’s a powerful moment that reminds us all of the importance of VVA’s mission.”
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