This article was published in the Lenoir News-Topic.
Every summer for years, American Legion Auxiliary Unit 29 has sent a high school student to Tar Heel Girls State.
Lately, though, the group is having trouble footing the bill.
In the past, Unit 29 paid the full price for a student from Caldwell County to attend Girls State, a weeklong workshop that lets girls dig into legislative government and leadership – part summer camp, part civics studies.
But as membership dropped and the cost of Girls State went up – it’s now $400 for one participant – Unit 29 has had to settle for paying half.
“Last year the girls themselves came up with some of it, and then we paid the remainder,” said Lindy Wilcox, who organizes the Girls State program for Unit 29. “Our membership has gotten down so low that we ourselves just don’t have the funds to send.”
The decrease in membership is due largely to a combination of downward shifts in the larger economy and an aging membership.
“The economy’s bad,” Wilcox said. “(And) we have had several members over the last two years that have passed away. … The fundraising efforts just have not brought in as much as they had in years past.”
Other units also have struggled to send as many students to Girls State as they used to, or to pay the full price.
But Girls State is just half of the story. The American Legion Auxiliary is a women’s organization, the counterpart to the American Legion – which sends boys to Boys State.
Like the Auxiliary and the Legion, Girls State and Boys State are separate, independently run organizations. So their costs don’t go up in tandem – and Boys State, this year, has held steady on its price.
But on both sides of the divide, those who still manage to sponsor the full cost of Girls and Boys State have had to get creative.
At Auxiliary Unit 40 in Edenton, the financial picture is bleaker than it has been in years past.
“We have struggled more in the past few years,” Unit president Sherri Volk said. “We’ve had to cut back on helping as many organizations and individuals.”
Unit 40 is still able to send four students a year to Girls State – but that’s because they reached out to other organizations, such as the Lions Club and the Ruritan, for help.
In 2011, Legion Post 106 in Salisbury found themselves unable to send any students to Boys State.
“Things were really pretty darn tight then,” said Post Adjutant Randy Smith, who has seen membership decline from more than 100 people in 2008 to around 70 today.
In 2012, Post 106 enlisted help from the auxiliary unit in Salisbury. As a team effort, the groups sent students to both Girls and Boys State.
Legion Unit 66 in Mooresville still manages two full sponsorships for Boys State. They’ve stayed solvent by renting out their hall for weddings and parties.
“I think all posts, they cannot survive on membership dues,” Post adjutant Theodore Moore said. “They have to have some kind of fundraiser.”
All those dips and cuts are part of a larger trend. Studies have shown that fewer Americans than ever carve out time for civic organizations such as the American Legion. Participation in voluntary organizations decreased by at least 6 percent from 1994 to 2004, according to research presented to the American Sociological Society in 2011.
Nationally, the American Legion has seen its membership decrease from 2.6 million in 2007, during the first rumblings of the recession, to 2.4 million today.
The legion is gearing up for a membership push, ramping up outreach to veterans and engaging in “full-scale communication” with lapsed members, national director of public relations Joe March said. The hope is to bump membership back up to 3 million by 2019.
In Lenoir, Wilcox just hopes Unit 29 can keep sending someone to Girls State every summer.
“It’s just a great learning experience,” she said. “In citizenship and government, leadership, teamwork, so much.”