When in the military, soldiers swear an oath to defend their country, and they rely on each other through the toughest of times to live up to that oath. When they return home to their communities, that oath doesn’t just end—nor does the knowledge of what it takes to work together to get through the most difficult of times.
That’s the message from the members of the American Legion Post 25 Disaster Preparedness Response Team, a committee of the El Centro-area veterans organization that came together when the Covid-19 pandemic struck in the Imperial Valley. Ever since, the post members have been working tirelessly to help the Valley’s communities through these challenging times.
And their efforts recently expanded to provide aid to the small township of Niland, which suffered a devastating community-wide fire on June 28.
Members of Post 25, in a virtual interview, said their work during this pandemic and response to the Niland fire shows what can happen when working together to achieve a goal. The Valley as a whole—including the entire 30th District of the American Legion, which represents all of Imperial County—has stood with Post 25 to ensure needs are met.
For the post, officially named the American Legion Boyce Aten Post 25 in honor of the first Imperial Valley resident killed in combat during World War I, there was never a question of whether to help. The question was—what was the best way to help?
“When this pandemic broke, we said let’s put this committee together,” said Bob Candland, a member of the disaster response team and the Post 25 commander. Joining Bob on the committee are Legion members Tracy Rascoe and J. Rollins.
They immediately started working with the county’s Emergency Operation Center to determine how they might best help. The decision was quickly made to prepare face masks following Center for Disease Control guidelines.
Not only would the committee make masks, they would serve as a channel for others to get face coverings to the EOC, which would then distribute them to those in essential services, especially emergency workers.
“We thought we could be a support until the private sector got caught up in making masks,” Candland said.
The effort grew into a community-wide volunteer campaign. The post worked with others throughout the Valley to gather the resources, and it didn’t take long to start producing the masks.
With the help of volunteers, some 2,500 masks have been created, provided to the county and distributed to those in need. Most recently, that effort included manufacturing masks for children at the Betty Jo McNeece Receiving Home where children separated from their families are cared for. They also created masks for the homeless that included a special attached chord to keep them from losing the masks.
“We have had a great bunch of stitchers helping us,” Candland said. “Just really good people who do this out of the goodness of their heart. It’s just been American ingenuity at its best.”
Along with providing masks and serving as the conduit to get them to the county’s EOC, Post 25 has also worked with other agencies, groups and civic clubs on a food drive, in particular for seniors whose ability to leave their home has been severely limited due to the pandemic.
Their efforts led to the collection of 250 pounds of beans and rice donated in collaboration with the Breakfast Rotary Club of Imperial. The post has also collected cans of food in collaboration with the county’s Area Agency on Aging.
The post’s work with the county more recently led County Public Administrator Rosie Blankenship, who oversees the Area Agency on Aging, to have the post administer a $25,000 grant from Southern California Gas Co. to aid with getting food to the elderly.
Under that grant, the post is working with El Sol Market in El Centro, and the county, to purchase chicken, bread, milk and eggs—all of which is placed into packages and delivered to seniors with the help of the National Guard.
“All the money is being used to buy food for the seniors,” said Rascoe, who added that over the next twelve to thirteen weeks, as many as 90 food baskets will be delivered daily to the seniors.
Whether providing masks or food, the post said it will continue to serve the community through the pandemic.
“We don’t want to see our community fail,” Rascoe said. “When we see our community hurting, we will be there to stand up to say—what can we do.”
Such was the case with the fire that recently devastated the township of Niland. A small community of about 2,000 people, Niland is located in the far northern section of Imperial County. On June 28, a nearby brush fire was swept by high winds into the town, destroying some 40 homes, leaving more than a 150 people homeless. One person died in the blaze.
As word spread of the fire, within hours not only Post 25, but all nine Legion Posts in the Imperial Valley began mobilizing efforts to help.
Each post took on a different role. Post 25 became the communication link between the EOC response and the effort of all Legion Posts.
“We wanted to make sure the people of Niland got what they needed,” Candland said, adding that’s why it was important to maintain a communication net with the county.
Within 72 hours, Candland said, Post 60—based in the city of Brawley—had truckloads of goods, from water to basic necessities, ready to deliver to Niland. Post 25 raised money—initially $1,500, then another $2,500.
“All the posts worked together to help Niland,” Rascoe said.
They attribute the fast response to their military training. “That’s our military background,” Candland said. “It was a beauty to watch, and everyone got involved whether in their 70s or the younger ones just returned from the sandbox. I couldn’t have been prouder of them all.”
Today, the post is continuing its efforts both to help with the pandemic and provide relief to Niland fire victims. The Post 25 building, located at 569 Broadway in El Centro, is open for two hours every day at lunch for people to drop off masks and donations. The drop-off can only be done at the curbside in front of the building.
Every Friday night, the post sells dinners as a fund-raiser, again for curbside pickup, and proceeds from the meal go to help the ongoing emergency needs in the Valley.
Rascoe and Candland said their post has been a part of the Imperial Valley for 101 years, and throughout that time, the post has always been there to help—and will continue to be. It’s what soldiers do.
“We are used to serving our country,” Rascoe said. “That doesn’t stop when we come home.”