PARIS — Sylvia Michaud-Kessell bustles around, checking the heat and cleaning the kitchen counter in the American Legion hall on Church Street on Monday morning.

The work belies a growing reality for the Foster-Carroll Post 72 Legion Auxiliary: fewer members and more work. 

For more than 100 years, the auxiliary has sought to honor the men and women returning from combat for their service. The organization of service members or the spouses of veterans was once a thriving group but has dwindled, battered as time wields age and health issues at those charged with keeping up veterans’ spirits.

Though they call around 86 volunteers members, Kessell estimates only 18 are active, of which a core eight, sometimes fewer, provide the daily work needed to keep the organization alive.

“Our motto is: In service for others — not self,” Kessell quotes.

“And that’s what keeps us going,” she said.  

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The gap of volunteers stretches the gulf between veterans returning from the Vietnam War and the conflicts around the globe today. New members are rare, and Kessell is not exactly sure why. 

“Somehow we’re getting lost. We need more of the younger generation to be willing to volunteer. There’s not enough,”  she said.

Trend or no, the members persist. The Ladies Auxiliary is the backbone of the post, she said, an equal partner with the American Legion which organizes and and helps run weekly Saturday dances and bingo games, food baskets to the needy during Christmas, fundraisers to pay the bills and scholarship donations to send female students to civics retreats. 

Free time for Kessell, 78, of Paris, is a vanishing commodity. 

A past president of the local auxiliary, the former nun and school teacher was born in Upper Frenchville in Aroostook County. She’s fluent in French, pronouncing St. Agatha as “St. Agat,” and has been active in the auxiliary since she moved to the region in the late 1980s. 

Like so many of the members, Kessell was drawn into the work for the friends and family who fought overseas. Some, like her husband, Bob, now deceased, returned. Several brothers did not. 

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Whether ensuring there’s a stockpile of free candy in the veterans’ home, or serving veterans from a walker, Kessell said the auxiliary’s service is tantamount to sacrifice, and it has forged an enduring kinship. 

“Hours? Oh my. I don’t even have time to write them down. I ask the other ladies’ for their’s, and they say the same thing,” she said. “It’s in our blood. Even as we age.”

Dabbing tears with a tissue, Kessell recalled a case where ambition grew in a reclusive amputee. 

“[He said] ‘Can you believe it? I’m helping! I thought I was worthless,'” she said.

President Carol Gould is not sure why people no longer volunteer, and she hopes members will pass their memberships to their children.

“We work to keep the spirit going at the veterans’ home,” Gould said. 

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At a special ceremony marking the American Legion’s 94th anniversary Wednesday, past president and long-standing member Florence McLaughlin, 90, will get a 70-year membership pin. 

McLaughlin recalled the organization’s heyday after World War II when the post was a community bulwark. 

“I don’t know why the new generations don’t want to be involved. It’s too bad, we’d like to keep it going,”  she said.

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