Though the novel coronavirus pandemic has thrown a major curveball at life, millions of Americans are working from home thanks to the internet and personal laptops, replicating the classroom through digital learning, visiting with loved ones via Facetime and getting groceries delivered to their doorsteps with just the click of a button.
Life may not be easier than it was pre-pandemic, but if COVID-19 has proved anything, it’s that a move from the real world to the virtual world is entirely possible — and can be done effectively.
While no one could have predicted this new way of the world less than a year ago, last fall one local organization was surprisingly ahead of its time in determining ways to shift its focus to meeting virtually rather than in-person.
The group? Riverside American Legion Post 488.
Since taking the reins as post commander back in 2017, Joseph Baar Topinka — son of lifelong Riversider and late Illinois politician Judy Baar Topinka — has made it his mission to turn the 101-year-old group from a disappearing relic into a rejuvenated community focused on providing veterans and their families with a sense of community.
During one of his first American Legion meetings as post commander, Topinka said only four members showed up to P.J. Klem’s restaurant in Lyons for an afternoon discussion. Three years later, he says membership has steadily grown to 40 members, crediting the group’s success to going virtual.
For Topinka, a retired U.S. Army major, the idea to move Riverside’s American Legion post to an online format was two-fold.
Older members, who hadn’t attended meetings in years, could be introduced to meeting virtually by receiving webcams, and younger local veterans — who often work long hours and have family commitments that leave little time for in-person meetings — could jump on at their convenience for a few minutes to check in with other veterans and build a new digital community.
“What I’m trying to turn the Legion into is a virtual, community-oriented, Riverside-centric organization that’s primarily designed for veterans,” Topinka said. “Frankly, the hardest thing today about keeping an organization like this together is because people are so busy. This is so important because, where can you go then as a veteran to find your community? It’s really about veterans communities having some type of feeling like they belong and they matter.”
To join the American Legion, you must be a veteran of the U.S. armed forces. But Topinka says the group is also working to create an American Legion Auxiliary, a partner group which, while traditionally for wives of veterans, has now been opened up to all spouses of veterans and other family members.
Today, with monthly meetings and a weekly commander’s call which takes place via Zoom, a full resource website and a dedicated Facebook page, American Legion Post 488 has been up and running and picking up momentum.
Along with online meetings and video chats, the post also offers speaking events, including an Abraham Lincoln impersonator offering a reading of Lincoln’s second inaugural address for Memorial Day, a virtual Poppy Day sale via Facebook, a Theodore Roosevelt impersonator sharing a message for the Fourth of July, and an upcoming Sept. 11 memorial day video chat with Allen James Lynch, a retired Army sergeant, Vietnam veteran and Medal of Honor recipient.
According to Topinka, outside of growing local membership from Riverside, Brookfield and North Riverside, the post’s strong digital presence has caught the attention of veterans from outside the area, with participants viewing content from as far as Ohio, Massachusetts, Texas and Arizona.
“I’m making the comment to everybody that Riverside is everyone’s hometown,” said Topinka, who still maintains a home in Riverside but works as an associate professor in the School of Health Administration at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. “Riverside is so magical; it’s always been magical, and a little bit of that Riverside magic has helped our small American Legion post grow.”
Outside of the virtual nature of the post, Topinka also hopes area veterans will come to view the American Legion as a career networking and wellness outreach organization for them and their families.
“It’s not so much about a building anymore where you can go. It’s about a community that you represent,” he said. “And, if you’re going to meet online, you can still create that community.
In true Riverside fashion, Topinka says one local service project still remains paramount to the group — fundraising for continued improvements to the Gold Star Memorial in downtown Riverside’s Guthrie Park.
According to Topinka, the Legion needs to pledge about $4,000 more for upkeep and renovations at the memorial. He said $1,000 from the post’s virtual Poppy Day last spring has already been earmarked toward the effort.
In the end, Topinka’s message about Riverside’s American Legion is simple.
“This is not your father’s or grandfather’s American Legion. This is something for the 21st century.”
For more information about American Legion Post 488, visit its website.