A year ago The American Legion Department of South Dakota’s Membership & Marketing Committee decided to spearhead service projects throughout the department as part of an overall marketing plan “to show we’re out doing things for veterans,” said Courtney VanZanten, South Dakota’s department service officer and assistant adjutant.
On July 10, members of the department’s American Legion Family put some muscle behind that initiative. Representatives from 14 South Dakota American Legion posts, Auxiliary units and Sons of The American Legion squadrons – along with other veteran and civic organizations, as well as individuals – descended upon the DTOM 22/0 Veterans Ranch in Warner to assist with clean-up around the ranch in an effort led by the Department of South Dakota.
The Veterans Ranch provides a venue for healing and recovery for servicemembers, veterans and their families primarily through free equine therapy. Those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, military sexual trauma and other conditions are able to use the ranch.
“Their big focus is mental health and suicide prevention. The (ranch) fit in nicely with what we wanted to do,” VanZanten said. “We’re not a rich department. But what we do have is members. We are the largest nonprofit, by membership in the state of South Dakota. So what we do have is manpower. That is our strength. We figure we can leverage that.”
Calling it “sweat equity,” VanZanten and the other volunteers spent the day at the Veterans Ranch demolishing an old granary barn, installing fencing in a pasture, cleaning up newly purchased land and horse pens, landscaping and building a loafing shed to shelter horses.
A total of 72 American Legion Family members were a part of an effort that also included Vietnam Veterans of America, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans and the United Way. The group started the day at 8 a.m. and didn’t finish up until 6 p.m., putting in an estimated 400 volunteer hours.
“We had made it an open invitation that anybody who wanted to come out and help us get this place ship-shape,” VanZanten said. “It was pretty incredible. For a first-time event it was a pretty phenomenal turnout. We were really happy with it.”
On its Facebook page, DTOM 22/0 praised the effort, calling it a “true example of bridge building and what it means to be part of a family. To bring all of these organizations and volunteers together … shows that no matter our branch of service, our rank, our organization, or physical capabilities, we all honored the oath of taking care of our brothers and sisters and worked together as one amazing family. Thank you, for your dedication, hard work, and belief in our mission to save lives together. This is what it means to be an American, and the most amazing display of Americanism. We are humbled.”
VanZanten said Veterans Ranch founder and CEO Chris Reder kept telling her “’my heart’s full right now.’ I saw where (the Veterans Ranch) started two years ago, and it’s absolutely incredible how far they’ve come and how much we even got done. It’s pretty neat.”
VanZanten said similar efforts are expected to happen in the department down the road, pointing to Department Membership Chairman Travise Flisrand’s focus on service projects that was developed in 2020.
“There’s numerous organization’s like the Ranch that are helping veterans in South Dakota,” she said. “We’re looking to leverage that strength in numbers to help veterans. I think people saw the potential in that workday at the ranch: what we can do when we come together. Even bridging the gap between the organizations and coming together for that common cause.”