“First things first,” starts Ed Ponsart, better known to thousands of SD43 students and graduates as Mr. Ponsart — a retired teacher and administrator at 17 schools in the Tri-Cities.
“The Legion is for everyone.”
Ponsart is the 2nd vice president of the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 263 in Coquitlam that’s currently on a membership drive after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted business.
Over the past three years, about 400 members have left the Austin Heights club due to physical restrictions caused by the global virus.
But now, the executive team is hoping to tempt them back, as well as attract new blood for social gatherings and fundraising at the Ridgeway Avenue lounge and hall.
Ponsart is optimistic the numbers will return.
And his messaging to the public is clear: You don’t need a military background or be related to service personnel to join.
“The myth is still out there,” Ponsart lamented, “but, in fact, we welcome anyone.”
Indeed, many Tri-City organizations lost members during the pandemic and some even shuttered for financial reasons.
Branch 263 struggled to keep afloat, too, said 1st vice president Jim Smith, a retired truck driver.
Still, with social distancing measures gone, its programs and services are slowly coming back on track: the Ladies Pool League is in session Thursday nights after a hiatus, and so is bingo.
Its hall schedule is also filling up again with community groups and special event rentals.
As well, its fundraising through meat draws and from provincial grants are also helping to offset costs for community, school and sporting groups — many of whom also suffered during the pandemic.
Recently, Smith said, Branch 263 donated $12,000 for the outdoor learning centre at Lord Baden-Powell Elementary in Coquitlam.
Typically, it gives out about $100,000 a year to registered non-profit organizations like the cadets, minor baseball and senior care homes, and parent advisory councils to put on dry grads.
Money for the charities also comes in through the branch’s weekend live music performances; membership for Saturday nights are waived, Ponsart said.
To bring the community in, the branch also hosts celebrations, of which families can visit the 125-seat lounge; the 1980s-style room — complete with furniture recycled from the now-defunct Cariboo Hotel — includes a bar, billiards, photos and a wartime tribute mural painted by Don Portelance’s students at Centennial Secondary.
Outside, Branch 263 also updated a wall with a Lest We Forget mural and had its plaque repaired by the Coquitlam Men’s Shed.
At present, membership stands at 678 with some people commuting as far away as Abbotsford; however, with the new residential towers popping up in the neighbourhood, the executive is anticipating a new wave.
“Our lounge is a nice place for people to meet,” Ponsart said.
“Most of us know each other here, so when someone new walks in, they might get a strange look at first but we welcome you with open arms. We’re a very friendly group.”
As for redeveloping the property, which the branch bought in 1959 from the Knights of Columbus, Smith said the executive isn’t interested.
“We are comfortable for now,” he said.
To learn more about the Legion Branch 263 and the membership fees, visit rclegion263.ca.