Teens assist American Legion

14-year-olds raise largest donation ever for Washougal post

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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WASHOUGAL — By and large, demographics for the American Legion tend to tilt more toward the septuagenarian set than toward millennials.

Men pushing the boundaries of middle age, and some older still, dominate the 94-year old veterans' organization, leading to waning membership numbers. National membership in the American Legion is 2.4 million, down from 3.1 million two decades ago, according to the legion's national office. It's a trend reflected at the Cape Horn American Legion Post 122 in Washougal, where membership has dropped from 112 to 108 in the past year.

Members still work to serve the community as best they can. But the older guys, veterans of World War II and the Korean War, have been dying. Vietnam vets are on their own march toward the golden years. And younger guys, who served in Afghanistan or Iraq, aren't exactly flocking to don the legion's garrison cap.

"We always strive for more members," post President David Stanton said, highlighting the need for more and younger members capable of leading the post's service efforts.

At a time when the local post was looking for an infusion of fresh blood, it got it -- in the unlikely form of a couple of teenagers, too young to have even sniffed a military recruitment office. Together, they raised the largest donation the post has ever seen. The money will go to feed the hungry during the holiday season.

When Eli Crabtree, then an eighth-grader, saw his dad, Vince, the finance director for the Cape Horn American Legion Post 122, struggling to balance the post's books last year, he stepped in. He asked his dad whether there was anything he could do to raise some money for the post. The timing seemed perfect, Eli said.

He and his buddy Tanner Howington were looking for a project that would fulfill a school requirement that eighth-graders dedicate 15 hours to community service throughout the year.

Their idea was an ambitious one: raise $1,500 for the post by convincing local businesses to donate items that could then be raffled. The duo shot and edited a video explaining what they were doing and used it to pitch their idea to business owners.

They went door to door, business to business, with a tablet computer in hand so they could play their video. The reception they received wasn't so much mixed, or lukewarm, as it was overwhelmingly positive.

The raffle went off without a hitch, with Eli and Tanner raising roughly $2,500.

But the kids weren't willing to let it end there. Even though they'd already exceeded the 15 hours required for their school project and the amount of money they expected to raise, they wanted to keep fundraising. They wanted to see how far they could go.

It wasn't easy, they said.

"After the raffle, money was kind of coming in slow, so we started looking at other ideas," Eli said. Another raffle, he added, would be too much work.

But he said he'd learned from the experience, in particular how to present himself to adults.

"I learned how to speak better with people," Eli said. "I mean, I still get nervous, but it's not as bad."

So he and Tanner sold candy, water, pepperoni sticks and flashlights, anything they could profit from. They hawked their wares primarily at school events. A hundred hours later, they'd raised more than $4,200, which they handed to the post at a ceremony last week.

For an organization that's seen its revenue drop in recent years, the money came as a welcome boost, Vince Crabtree said. Before the donation, the post had roughly $8,000 in its account.

"We were one insurance claim away from trouble," he said.

All the money will go toward the post's holiday food baskets, the top charitable service the post provides. The goody-filled baskets go to about 50 families every year.

"This is a big deal for us," said Vince Crabtree, a retired U.S. Navy airplane mechanic. "This allows us to do this for years and years in the future."

Entrepreneurial spirit

Eli and Tanner's fundraising prowess exceeded their own expectations and, frankly, those of the Cape Horn legionnaires, who expected a few bucks — not thousands.

At last week's ceremony for the teens, when told of their plans to continue raising money for the post, Stanton said jokingly, "Remember, guys, we're a nonprofit."

Joe Fettig, a post member, called Eli a self-motivator with perseverance to spare. Looking back on his interactions with the 14-year-old, now a freshman at Washougal High School, he mused, "You'd think he'd been in business for several years."

Stanton said the money was badly needed in their rural community, East Clark County and Skamania County, which is dependent on diminishing federal timber payments. It continues to suffer from high unemployment numbers.

"I think people out here have been disproportionately impacted by the (economic) downturn," Stanton said, "many of whom are veterans."

He called Eli and Tanner an inspiration to their classmates and other legion members.

At the end of last week's ceremony, as dozens of family and well-wishers stood and applauded, the duo was given a special honor. The boys were made Sons of the American Legion, a designation given to young people whose parents or grandparents served in the military.

In essence, they became the two newest, and youngest, members of the post. They promised to keep raising money and living within the legionnaire spirit.

Explaining why he and Tanner felt so passionately about their year-long project, Eli didn't miss a beat: "We just don't like to see people going hungry over the winter."