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Veterans, social organizations fight to stay afloat amid finances hurt by COVID-19 pandemic

Pekin Daily Times - 5/26/2020

May 23--Area veterans and social organizations normally operate on a financial shoestring, with members volunteering their time and expertise to keep the doors open.

Those shoestrings have been tied into a knot by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced the closure of posts and clubhouses since mid-March.

Food and beverage sales are down or nonexistent. Video gaming machines are shut off.

Fundraisers like raffles that draw huge crowds can't be held. Neither can events like weddings and retirements that bring in substantial revenue from rentals.

Still, the organizations soldier on.

"We have to tighten our belt and keep going," said Jerry Davis, commander of Morton VFW Post 5921 for nearly 20 years.

That belt became particularly tight last week when the post canceled its annual July 3 fireworks show, its primary fundraiser.

Davis said donations for parking, and food and beverage sales at the show generally bring in from $10,000 to $12,000 each year.

The post has hosted the show, which draws thousands of spectators, mostly families, for decades at its Veteran Road location.

Davis said he can't recall the show ever being canceled or shortened, although there have been some close calls because of weather issues.

But there won't be a show this year.

"I pretty much made the decision about six weeks ago to cancel the show because I knew a crowd like we normally get wouldn't be allowed," Davis said. "I thought maybe we could do a show with only high fireworks and people could watch from home, but our police chief was worried that big crowds would still gather."

The village of Morton and the Morton Park District split the cost of the fireworks each year so the post can benefit financially from the show as much as possible.

Village records show the village donating $5,000 for the show each year from 2011-14, $5,500 each year from 2015-17 and $6,500 in 2018 and 2019.

No matter how tempting it is during these tough times, executive orders from the state limiting gatherings during the pandemic can't be ignored. Just ask Jim Talaska, commander of Washington American Legion Post 100.

"If we lost our state liquor and video gaming licenses because we violated an executive order, we'd have to shut down," Talaska said. "I'm not going to put our post at risk to possibly make a few dollars. That would be irresponsible."

Talaska said the post still has a $2,000 per month electric bill to pay, even though it's closed and he's had to refund $3,500 in summer rentals for events.

"We're dipping into our savings," he said.

The post has hosted a community Easter egg hunt since the late 1930s. From 75 to 100 kids normally participate. This year's hunt, scheduled for April 4, was canceled because of the pandemic. It was the first time since World War II that the hunt wasn't held.

Memorial Day weekend normally is a busy time at the Pekin Boat Club, with upward of 30 campers filling the grounds and boat owners getting their watercrafts into the Illinois River.

Adding insult to injury, the club is closed this weekend not only because of the pandemic. Flooding from the swollen river has made the club inaccessible.

"We normally lose six to 10 weeks a year because of river flooding. We expect that. We didn't expect to be closed for longer than that this year," said Steve Sangalli, the club's treasurer and a third-generation club member.

Memorial Day through Labor Day is when the club normally makes most of its money, Sangalli said.

"So the clock has started to tick," he said. "We're doing what we can to cut expenses, like stopping DirectTV in the clubhouse. For a seasonal club, this is not a good situation."

Rockin' for TAPS, a popular annual fundraiser for the Pekin-based no-kill animal shelter held at the Pekin Boat Club that features live entertainment by area bands, has been rescheduled for late September.

But it isn't known if large crowds will be allowed to gather by then.

There is a glimmer of hope on the horizon, at least at the Washington American Legion post.

After doing Friday carry-out service of wings, French fries and handmade pizza for weeks, the post plans to offer outdoor dining weekly when that's allowed starting Friday.

"We have a few picnic tables, and 20 acres where you can sit outside and eat socially distancing, or in your car," Talaska said. "People can call in their order and we'll bring out the food when it's ready."

Beer also will be available, Talaska said, for consumption on site or at home.

Talaska said he wants the post to host a community appreciation day when the area is fully reopened from pandemic closings.

"We'll have free hamburgers and hot dogs, bounce houses for the kids ... it'll be a lot of fun," he said.

The Morton VFW post has about 120 members. The Washington American Legion post has more than 170 members. The Pekin Boat Club has 142 members.

Steve Stein can be reached at (248) 224-2616 or Follow him on Twitter @SpartanSteve.


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