In the small city of Charles Town, W.Va., Jackson-Perks American Legion Post 71 is one of the most prominent buildings along the main drag in the downtown area.
But members of Post 71’s American Legion Family aren’t just interested in being noticeable as a physical structure. Its recent focus has been on being a community entity, offering something for veterans and their families, as well as other local residents. And that has resulted in membership growth across the board in the post’s Legion Family.
The effort includes the installation of a virtual reality (VR) arcade and game room in the post’s second level, opening the area up on Fridays and Saturdays as a way for parents to come to the post and have their children there with them. The arcade is free to Legion Family members, while non-members pay a cover charge and then a fee for VR games.
Post 71 Second Vice Commander Joe Malcolm, 48, served in the U.S. Air Force from 1998-2003 and joined the post a little less than two years ago. He noticed the post’s older demographics and knew something had to be done to bring in younger veterans.
“When looking at recruiting younger members, it’s paramount to look at the family as a whole,” Malcolm said. “A lot of our younger vets don’t go anywhere without their (spouse) and kids. You can’t get the (spouse) and family involved in an organization like ours without a program that includes the kids. As we looked at events that try to involve children … that was the missing element: the family element. In order to get that, we had to have a place where the kids can go.
“And as you look at youth as it is today, as a man with a young family, sports are good for families. But there is no child on this planet that doesn’t play video games. There is no child on this planet that doesn’t watch other people play video games. So, it was a great implement to bring the family element together. And a lot of kids are sitting at home playing video games by themselves. (The arcade) provides a social element to those children as well. Now they’re gaming with other people. Not just communicating through technology but communicating face to face with other peers.”
The arcade was made possible by Post 71 Children & Youth Chairman Richard Scherzinger, the owner of Flynn Gaming and a U.S. Navy veteran. The 48-year-old Scherzinger has a tech that background that includes both computer repair and building, as well as web design, video editing and production.
Scherzinger got into VR in 2016 and began obtaining equipment to share the experience with others. He had been providing VR for a Virginia American Legion post when he was contacted by Malcom and Post 71 Canteen Manager Rick Adamsson about doing something similar in the post’s large upstairs room.
“What we’re trying to do here at Post 71 is make the post more family-friendly, especially on Friday nights when we have live music and dinner specials downstairs,” Scherzinger said. “We provide this completely free for Legion Family members and their families. It’s a safe space for the kids to come and hang out while their parents are downstairs. And sometimes the parents come up here and hang out with their kids. It’s an affordable way for parents to come and spend time with their kids in a nice, safe, clean space.”
The arcade consists of four gaming stations: three Nintendo Switches and one PlayStation 4, and a free-roam virtual reality setup for up to four people at one time. But there’s also air hockey, foosball, pickleball, cornhole, darts and board games.
The upstairs bar has been made kid-friendly, selling snacks, pop, water and energy drinks, along with a television. Pizza also can be purchased from the post’s kitchen. And the arcade workers are youth and members of the post’s Legion Family.
“Once I got (to Post 71) I had some much room. We could do so much more than virtual reality. It’s gaming of all sorts here,” Scherzinger said. “We have adults that come up and play virtual reality. It’s really great to see people who have never experienced virtual reality before get into it for the first time. That’s an experience I love to give people because it blows their mind.”
Scherzinger said providing that kind of experience for both the parents and their children, “feels really good, honestly. My dad was a member of the VFW, and that was not a kid-friendly place at all, as far as going there and hanging out with my folks and other members of the community. It feels great to have a place where kids can go and where they want to go … and other kids in the same age group with the same interests will be here as well.”
The arcade is just one of the ways the post has shown it’s a family facility. For the second year in a row, Post 71 operated a haunted house for the community’s youth. Its Veterans Day ceremony included local JROTC students and Kiwanis K-Kids elementary students. Future events include a children’s Christmas party and a family-friendly New Year’s Eve party. A local Girl Scout troop is going to start meeting at the post.
And on Thanksgiving, the post opened its doors to provide a meal to veterans and their families, as well as anyone “with no place to go.”
“The goal is to create multiple facets and multiple programs,” Malcolm said. “As I look at New Year’s and the other major events throughout the year, how do you bring a veteran into the organization without the family? During our Friday night dinner special, we thank the veteran. But as a veteran, the bigger group we have to thank is the families. Without the support of the families that waiting at home for us to come back, we couldn’t have done what we did.
“So, involving the family is paramount to who and what we are as veterans. Every event we do we look at the family element.”
The effort has made a difference in Post 71’s growth. Membership in the post was at 79 percent of its 2023 goal on Veterans Day after finishing 2022 at 20 percent above its goal. Sons of The American Legion Squadron 71 finished 2022 at 110 percent of its goal and already has hit 120 percent for 2023.
“(Membership) has increased across the family,” Malcolm said. “And if you look at the demographics of the membership that’s joining, it stretches from 19 (years-old) to 80. It’s not a demographic of 50 and older.”
What Post 71 is doing is breaking down what West Virginia District 10 Commander and Past Post 71 Commander Tom Hansen said are preconceptions of what The American Legion is. “It’s not a bar,” he said. “It’s a community organization. The kids are upstairs on a Friday night. They’re having a good time on the VR. And (the parents) are coming down and seeing what the veterans are doing (at the post).
“Isn’t that our dogma, that The American Legion is not only there for the veterans, but there for the community as a whole? We go out of our way to make sure that if there is a need in the community and we can fulfil it, we will.”
For Malcolm, trying to grow Post 71 through benefiting its community goes back to lessons learned long ago. “I was raised that you leave the world a better place than you found it,” he said. “That principle was instilled furthermore in the United States Air Force. It’s all about community. It’s all about a sense of belonging.
“When I first came into the Legion and I looked at what we stood for and what we meant, what we believed in, it’s a worthy cause. It’s a great cause, because it’s about the veteran. But it’s not just about the veteran. It’s about the community. And as I look at the youth of the world, they are our future.”