American Legion Post 79 member Bob Boulden, a Korean War veteran collects donations during Burlington’s Poppy Day in 2018. The traditional fundraiser was canceled this year due to coronavirus and members of the American Legion Auxiliary are hoping people contribute to the cause online.

Traditional annual veterans fundraiser scratched by coronavirus

By Ed Nadolski

Editor in Chief

To organizer Elaine Phelps the annual American Legion Auxiliary Poppy Day fundraiser in Burlington means much more than the relatively modest $3,100 it raised in 2019.

“It’s a sign that we’re still Americans and we still stand up for our values – we still stand up for our veterans,” she said.

The funds, which support programs for veterans and their families locally and statewide, are tangible. And when those funds are aggregated with donations from other posts throughout the state, the effort has a very real and positive impact on the lives of veterans.

But beyond that, according to Phelps, the gesture of the many people who donate coins, crumpled dollar bills and the occasional crisp $20 bill speaks to the heart of a community that still honors the personal sacrifices of military service.

This year’s fundraiser, however, is in jeopardy due to restrictions in place to limit the spread of coronavirus.

Phelps has been chairperson of the Burlington American Legion Post 79 Auxiliary’s Poppy fundraiser since 2006 and was distraught after learning the 2020 event couldn’t be held the same way it has been in this country since 1924.

“We hope we can keep this going,” she said, while expressing concern about the viability of a fundraiser amid a global pandemic that is hosted by an organization with and aging and dwindling membership.

An enduring symbol

In a normal year, members of the Auxiliary, American Legion members and other volunteers would set up outside several of Burlington’s major retail stores to accept donations and distribute the familiar red crepe paper poppies that hang proudly from rearview mirrors and jacket zippers in the months that follow.

The poppy is a flower that flourished in Belgium and France in the years immediately following World War I and was adopted by the American Legion in 1920 as a symbol to memorialize the soldiers who fought and died. It has also become a symbol of support for the living who have worn the military uniforms of the United States, according to the American Legion.

The national American Legion Poppy Day is scheduled for May 22. Burlington typically schedules its Poppy Day on the third Saturday in May so as to not conflict with the annual Burlington ChocolateFest – another victim of the coronavirus – during the Memorial Day weekend.

The third Saturday this year, May 16, is also appropriately designated as Armed Forces Day.

Seeking help

With their normal fundraising route blocked and the membership of the Auxiliary more familiar with bake sales than online fundraisers, Phelps sought help from the community in coming up with a solution.

The result is an online funding portal set up through GoFundMe. Those who wish to contribute to the Burlington Poppy Day fund may visit gofundme.com and use the search function in the upper left corner of the page to search for Burlington Poppy Day.

“We aren’t begging for anything else other than this year,” Phelps said, expressing hope the traditional poppy drive will return in 2021.

But, she acknowledged, even that has become a struggle for the organization is recent years.

“We are so small and many of us are older,” she said. “We are struggling to do poppies and Badger Girls.”

Before coronavirus restrictions wiped out this year’s event Phelps admitted she wasn’t sure if she could find enough volunteers to staff all of the usual Poppy Day outlets.

The Auxiliary has 28 members, but many are elderly and aren’t as active as they used to be. Phelps said they now struggle to handle their two major events each year – Poppy Day and sponsorship of a local high school student to attend Badger Girls State, a weeklong mock government and civics camp held each summer.

Making an impact

She said the organization remains determined nonetheless because its members know the good that comes from the money donated for Poppy Day.

In recent years the local funds have gone to a variety of organizations that serve veterans. Among those are:

  • Veterans Homes in Union Grove and King;
  • Veterans Administration Medical Center in Milwaukee;
  • Visually Impaired Veterans of Milwaukee;
  • Fisher House for families of hospitalized veterans;
  • Camp American Legion at Tomahawk Lake;
  • USO at Mitchell International Airport, Milwaukee; and
  • Vets Roll, honor tour of Washington D.C. war memorials

However, for Phelps, the most gratifying donations the Auxiliary makes are those to needy family members of active military personnel who are currently deployed.

“We like to do this and keep it local,” she said. “If families will let us know (they have a need), we have this (money) here for them.”               Phelps said she’ll miss the interaction she normally has with the public during Poppy Day.

“It’s a rewarding day for those of us who volunteer,” she said. “I like to offer (the poppies) to the kids and hope their parents tell them about the military and sacrifice.”

While those interactions will have to wait a year for traditional Poppy Day sales to resume, Phelps said she’s hopeful the online campaign will fill the void in 2020.

“It’s a way for the program to continue,” she said. “It will benefit organizations that need help – and that’s the main reason we’re trying to pull this off.”

To make a donation to the Burlington Poppy Day fundraiser, click on the following link: Poppy Day