The San Dieguito American Legion Post 416 found itself cornered two years ago.
Not by enemies, but by time: Its long-time headquarters in downtown Encinitas was crumbling with no end in sight, its membership was aging and its funds were dwindling.
Just when the future looked bleak, a new team of concerned Post 416 members took the reins of the veterans service organization in the summer of 2014 and charted a new course. By all accounts, they’ve been wildly successful.
Post 416 has added almost 200 new members since June 2014 — the fastest growth rate among American Legion posts in Southern California during this period. All told, Post 416 counts about 450 members among its ranks.
“A few years ago, we’d have a Post meeting and there might be five guys,” Rolf Ohnstad said. “Come in now and the room is full. This Post is the talk of all the American Legion at the local level and beyond.”
Post Commander Steve Lewandowski credited a slew of new Post-initiated events with bringing in more members and also raising funds for the organization. Plus, the group has taken part in more community charity events as well as celebrations, with its float at the Encinitas Holiday Parade in December being a good example.
“The word is getting out and veterans and others who didn’t know about us are coming out of the woodwork,” Lewandowski said. “We’ve really stepped up our outreach.”
Recent special events hosted by Post 416 included a book signing with Lester Tenney, a Post member who survived the Bataan Death March in World War II, and a fundraiser for Post 416 in which Medal of Honor recipient Michael E. Thornton spoke.
Thornton was in the area for another engagement, but agreed to donate his time to support Post 416’s Save Our Legion campaign, which calls for rebuilding its space.
Tucked away at 210 West F Street in Encinitas, Post 416 has been a community staple for local veterans and their families since 1932. One of the room’s walls is lined with pictures of past commanders, going back to the early 1930s.
Today, the spot is the headquarters for a legion territory that runs from Carmel Valley to Oceanside and then inland areas like San Marcos and Rancho Santa Fe.
But the Encinitas Post buildings are badly in need of a renovation, a fact that was underscored more than two years ago when part of its east wall collapsed onto the sidewalk and street.
Lewandowski said the account for the Save Our Legion campaign currently has more than $75,000, a sea change from three years ago when the group had almost no funds for repairs. In fact, the Post was losing money every year and on pace to close within three years.
“New leadership came in and knew the current state of affairs was unacceptable. The attitude was we’re not going to sit around and wait for the place to close. We’ve been too vital for the community for too long, so by God, we’re going to draw a line in the sand,” Lewandowski said.
Post 416 is currently led by 11 officers.
“We’ve turned it around, I’m proud to say,” he said.
Lewandowski noted that many don’t realize that membership is not only open to veterans, but also those currently in uniform and those who have family who were in the military.
Brian Hall, a Marine Corps veteran, joked that he was the token young guy when he first joined Post 416. But he said a good number of people in their 20s and 30s have joined in the last year or so.
“It’s good to see people are carrying on this tradition,” Hall said.
David Lash, a Vietnam War veteran, volunteers regularly at Post 416. He said there’s something about the wooden bar and surrounding rooms that just feel welcoming.
Lash added he feels a real sense of camaraderie at the spot, attributing this to the shared bond among those who have served.
“When I first walked in here, people I didn’t even know felt like my friends,” Lash said.
Post 416 is open from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturdays and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays. Visitors and those interested in becoming members are welcome to drop in.
For more information on membership or donating, visit www.calegionpost416.org.