Royal Canadian Legion branches adapt to support veterans during pandemic

TORONTO — Royal Canadian Legion branches are adapting their services to support veterans during the COVID-19 pandemic, even as the national organization warns financial pressures could result in the closure of some branches.

The head of the national veterans and community service group said this week that despite the shut down of most branches, volunteers continue preparing hot meals, delivering groceries and providing online social links to struggling veterans.

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Dominion President Thomas Irvine said the efforts come at a time when legion branches themselves are under considerable financial strain because of the pandemic, with their main sources of income — in-house restaurants and bars, as well as hosted events — cut off.

"Legion members are united right across the country," Irvine said in an interview. "They're doing what is best for the veterans in their communities because they care. They're extremely supportive."

But with 1,350 branches across the country that essentially operate as autonomous small businesses, Irvine said they are feeling the strain of lost income and mounting bills as they continue their work.

"On a day-to-day basis, many branches are hand-to-mouth," he said. "They pay the bills and keep their doors open. This is going to have a major impact on a lot of our branches."

Irvine said some branches are drawing from their poppy funds or accepting donations to continue charitable work in their communities. In order to deal with operational challenges, they are also being advised to investigate deferring bill payments to utilities or suppliers or to look to provincial governments for help.

"In most small towns, the branches are central," Irvine said. "In a month to two months from now, they may be closed because they had no income coming in the door."

Meanwhile, volunteers at the branches are finding ways to support isolated veterans, many of whom have health issues that make them susceptible to COVID-19.

Chris Banks, a volunteer and executive member at a branch in Brampton, Ont., said the pandemic has struck a chord with many veterans who learned to "adapt and overcome" in their earliest training.

The 20-year military veteran said that mindset has been put to the test over the past few weeks as volunteers try to help elderly legion members and veterans who cannot leave their homes.

Banks said volunteers at his branch began to reach out to veterans to arrange grocery drop-offs over the last few weeks.

"We called the veterans, we said, 'We're going to leave (the groceries) on your porch, don't even come out,'" he said. "Just wave at us through the window."

The branch has adapted again in recent days, moving to grocery delivery services as stay-at-home orders have intensified.

"We thought this was safer for us and the veterans," Banks said.

In Fonthill, Ont., legion president Toni McKelvie said she and a small group of volunteers have started cooking meals for members and seniors in that Niagara Region community.

To date, they've cooked nearly 700 dinners and arranged drop-offs to encourage physical distancing and keep people safe.

"Our seniors are really scared," said McKelvie. "They're afraid to go out of their houses, their apartments. So, I talked to our volunteers and said, 'Let's make some meals for them.'"

McKelvie said the branch has been receiving donations to help offset costs and continue their work for the dozens of seniors they serve.

"It's worth it to see people happy and know they're going to get a decent meal," she said.

Veteran and legion member Brent Lens said an Ottawa-area branch helped him over the weekend as he struggles with his health and finances during the pandemic.

The 55-year-old is immunocompromised because of several serious health issues and is worried about going out to get groceries. The branch helped provide him the money to buy the supplies for his family, he said.

Lens said he is grateful, but acknowledged it's hard for any veteran to ask for help, even in times of unprecedented challenge like this pandemic.

"The legion says, 'Don't apologize for asking for help,'" he said. "They say, 'It's okay, don't be ashamed. This is what we're here do to. You did your part. We're doing our part too.'"

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 2, 2020.

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