The Legion of Boom
If you look at American Legion San Dieguito Post 416 today, you probably wouldn’t guess that it nearly closed just two years ago due to declining funding and membership. The post has seen such a remarkable resurgence in membership in recent years, however, that it has earned the moniker “The Legion of Boom” among the American Legion Family. With the rebuilding of its facilities and further increasing membership at the top of its priority list, the post is positioning itself to continue serving military veterans and their families in the Encinitas community for another 90 years. We sat down with Post 416 Commander Steve Lewandowski to find out more.
Deep Roots in San Dieguito
In a small white building on F St. in downtown Encinitas, a group of passionate people meet to make friends, memories, and a difference for U.S. veterans and civilians in 92024 and beyond. They’re the members of the American Legion San Dieguito Post 416 and they have been a part of the fabric of Encinitas for over 90 years.
Post 416 is a part of the national American Legion, which is the largest veteran’s organization in the world. The organization has approximately 13,000 locations throughout the U.S. “So to put that in perspective,” laughed Post 416 Commander Steve Lewandowski, “there are more American Legions than there are Starbucks.” The American Legion, headquartered in Indianapolis, will be celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2019.
Not long after the American Legion was founded as an organization, Post 416 was founded in 1930 with the mission of helping veterans and their families in San Diego County – primarily those hailing from the coastal communities of North County. “Although we have members from all over, our specific area is from Carmel Valley to Carlsbad. That’s the traditional San Dieguito area,” Steve explained.
The membership of Post 416 is made up of more than just the wartime veterans you’d normally associate with a group such as the American Legion. While veterans definitely make up a large portion of members, the “American Legion Family” includes the American Legion Auxiliary, a group of women who’ve had a relative serve in the armed forces; the Sons of the American Legion (SOL), men that have had a male member in their family serve in the American Legion; and the American Legion Riders, members that ride their motorcycles in support of patriotic events for veterans.
And with deep roots in a community such as Encinitas, Post 416 has never put limits on their members’ ambitions. “Something that we’re remarkably proud of is that our first female commander was elected in 1961,” said Steve. “So we were way ahead of the power curve. We’re proud of that, and we’ve got some women members who are very proud of that too.”
At-A-Glance | Commander
Name: Steve Lewandowski
Community: Del Mar
Armed Forces Branch & Rank: Officer in the United States Navy
Family: Living in the Midwest
Hobbies & Interests: Reading, getting together for dinner with friends
Making a Difference in Military Communities
To fulfill their mission of helping those who have served in the U.S. armed forces and their families, Post 416 hosts a variety of events for not only their members but also veterans and active military personnel throughout San Diego. The post often rents out their space to groups of Marines from Camp Pendleton, Miramar, or even Coronado for events such as awards ceremonies or “hail and farewells,” which serve as greetings for new people coming on board or goodbyes to those who are leaving. “Marines also have a thing called PME (Professional Military Education) and they want to have it off-base but still in a very military- and veteran-friendly environment, so they rent our post out,” Steve elaborated. The Retired Marine Corps Drill Sergeants Association also meets at the post regularly, as do other veteran nonprofits.
“The thing we’re most proud of, more than anything, is that last year the members of our post documented over 17,000 hours of community service for veterans and their families in San Diego County,” said Steve. Those thousands of community service hours entailed visiting ailing veterans at the San Diego VA Medical Center, the Balboa Naval Hospital, and the Chula Vista Veterans Home. “Some of these veterans are all alone and they really love it when we come in there and talk to them, kid with them, and give them presents, crossword puzzles, and goodies if they can eat them. So we get more out of it than they do.”
Post 416 also supports the Stand Down event hosted by the Veterans Village of San Diego, has an outreach program for homeless veterans, and participates in a clothing drive that collects high-end interview clothing that is donated to women in Camp Pendleton.
Keeping Active in Encinitas
While Post 416 is incredibly hands-on in San Diego’s veteran and military communities, they still manage to be an active gear in the thriving, well-oiled machine that is Encinitas. “We have wonderful meals, we have wonderful fundraising programs,” Steve expressed. “For instance, we started a ‘heroes’ speaker series last year, and in that time we’ve had some of the most fascinating military service veterans give talks that you’ve ever heard of!” The speaker series and the weekly meals – ranging from burgers on Monday to Friday dinner to Sunday brunch – are always open to the public for a small donation.
The post’s auxiliary further connects the community with the American Legion by holding fundraisers like their annual golf tournament. They also support programs like the Boys and Girls State, which allows high school boys and girls to participate in a mock-government in Sacramento. The auxiliary sponsors select girls who apply from high schools in the San Dieguito area.
Holidays are also a big deal for the post; each year they host a Memorial Day service and participate in the annual Encinitas Holiday Parade. And with many post members also serving as members of the local Rotary Clubs, the groups often come together for events such as Big Bingo Night, co-hosted with San Diego Nice Guys. “We’re part of ‘Team Encinitas.’ We’ve been there, like I said, for almost nine decades and we want to work with everyone,” shared Steve. “Our greatest weapon is a community that cares.”
Rebuilding the Legion
Currently, Post 416 has approximately 500 active members throughout the four divisions of their American Legion Family. Just a few months ago, at the American Legion State Convention, San Dieguito’s post was honored with the National Commander’s Award of Post Excellence. The award was earned in part due to their providing excellent philanthropy and service, but was mostly a testament to the post’s resurgence. In the last two years, Post 416 has managed to recruit 350 members after almost closing down completely.
“What happened was, quite literally, not only were we running out of money but we were running out of members,” Steve explained. Many of the post’s members were veterans from World War II or the Korean War, and as they began to pass away with age, membership grew smaller and smaller, with chances of growth looking slim. Just when it seemed like they’d have to close their doors for good, the post caught a second wind. Younger and enthusiastic members came on board and began breathing new life into the organization. The extensive recruitment began, and as people became more passionate about the post, the post could afford to be more involved with the community. This renaissance is considered by some to be one of the most remarkable transformations in the American Legion.
“Membership is the lifeblood of our organization,” expressed Steve. “When we have more members, we have more activity. When we have more activity, we’re able to help with our mission and raise more money to rebuild our post.” Now, with new energy, the post is determined to raise money for a new building. So far, they’ve raised tens of thousands of dollars for their cause thanks in larger part to their Save Our Legion Committee, established under Steve’s leadership in 2014.
When Do They Meet?
American Legion Post 416
2nd Wednesdays | 7 p.m.
American Legion Auxiliary
1st Tuesdays | 6 p.m.
American Legion Riders
3rd Sundays | 12 p.m.
Sons of the American Legion
See website for dates
Creating a New Space
Post 416’s building in downtown Encinitas has been around for almost as long as the American Legion itself. Haphazardly built in three different stages, and technically three different buildings, the facility is in dire need of repair. But instead of merely repairing the structurally unsound building, the legion is committed to building a whole new space altogether. With help from their Save Our Legion Committee, an Encinitas architect, and many local businesses, the post hopes to erect a brand new building in the same space where their current building stands.
The committee is headed by Ralph Bettencourt, a notable member of the Encinitas community. Steve affirmed, “The Save Our Legion Committee is committed to raising the money to rebuild our buildings so that we can continue to serve veterans and their families for another 90 years.” Businesses or individuals interested in contributing to the cause can contact Steve directly or attend one of the post’s fundraising events to learn more.
What’s Happening @ the Post!
Burgers & Brew Mondays | 5 – 8 p.m.
Taco Tuesdays | 4 – 8 p.m.
Wing-It Wednesdays | 5 – 9 p.m.
Pool Tournament Thursdays | 7:30 p.m.
Friday Special Menu + Live Music | 1 – 8 p.m.
Saturday Dinner + Live Music | 5:30 – 7 p.m.
Sunday Brunch | 10 a.m. – 1 p.m.
Paving the Way
With only a small percentage of Americans serving in the armed forces, the American Legion believes it is crucial to have spaces where veterans can go to continue their legacy. Steve explained, “Part of our responsibility is to serve as a reminder of the great cost that it takes for this nation’s freedom.”
One of the ways that Post 416 strives to respect and support local veterans is by becoming the go-to organization for Memorial Day and Veterans Day events. Each year, the San Dieguito post hosts a Memorial Day celebration; this past year more than 400 people attended the block party in Encinitas. And in November, the American Legion held their first Veterans Day Salute at the Del Mar Racetrack, which coincided with opening day. Ticket sales went to the organization’s new building campaign. “We want Encinitas to think of us right away not only as a place to return their tattered flags, which we will properly dispose of, but we want them to automatically think of us for Memorial Day and Veterans Day.”
As they continue building their legacy, San Dieguito’s American Legion Family holds true to their short-term and long-term goals. In the near future, the post will continue trying to increase membership. This leads directly to their long-term goal. “Twenty-nineteen is the 100th anniversary of the American Legion nationally, and we would like to have our new building built and 1,000 members by then,” Steve said. “If you build it, they will come.” Post 416 invites people of all ages to stop by and visit to learn more or just make some new friends. Many don’t realize that to be a member you don’t have to be a wartime service veteran but can simply have had a female or male relative who served during a time of war.
“One last thing,” Steve concluded. “Have you ever heard of the Legion of Doom? Well they’re starting to call us the ‘Legion of Boom.’ It’s about the remarkable revitalization and resurgence of American Legion Post 416.” With nearly 90 years already under their belt, the American Legion of San Dieguito is determined to continue supporting veterans and thriving for the next 90 years.
At-A-Glance | American Legion San Dieguito Post 416
Commander: Steve Lewandowski
Facebook: American Legion Post 416
Address: 210 West F St., Encinitas, CA 92024
Hours: 1 – 9 p.m.