Children & Youth

Children & Youth

A Square Deal for Every Child


To the early American Legion, support for children and youth was a matter of morality and national security alike. Families were shattered across the country when parents came home disabled or psychologically wounded from World War I. Thousands were orphaned when parents did not come home at all. During the war, the American Legion’s founders also discovered a lack of physical fitness, literacy and understanding of such American ideals as justice, freedom and democracy. As The American Legion began to take shape in 1919, anti-democracy movements were under way in the United States, targeting young people. The American Legion was determined to offer healthy, patriotic alternatives.

Support for the Boy Scouts

The only youth program singled out for recognition at the first American Legion National Convention in 1919 in Minneapolis, was Boy Scouts of America. “RESOLVED, That the American Legion heartily commends the principles and achievements of the Boy Scouts and recommends that each Post assist the Scout troops in its community in whatever manner practicable.” In time, American Legion posts nationwide would become the largest non-faith-based sponsor of Scouting units in the United States, a relationship that remains strong today.

Local Support Programs

By late 1919, local American Legion posts and American Legion Auxiliary units were at work to fulfill a national resolution to extend to the spouses and children of U.S. war dead “such care and assistance as may be within their power.” This took many shapes – from individual efforts by posts to hold together families with children at home to the Kansas American Legion’s adoption of the Boys Industrial School of Topeka for kids who had gotten into trouble with the law. Without the kind of veterans benefits that would later come out of American Legion advocacy, families were often poor and needed help from local posts to get by.

Relationship with the National Education Association

The National Education Association, at its annual meeting in Des Moines on July 7, 1921, accepts The American Legion’s offer “to cooperate with the NEA in securing for America a program of education adequate to meet the needs of the 20th century ... and which will make all, whether native or foreign-born, good American citizens.” At this time, only 15 million of the 27 million school-age children in America attend school daily. The Legion calls for no less than a high school diploma and two years of professional experience for teachers and urges that English should be primary language taught and that history and civics be added to curriculum. This relationship would lead to National Education Week in December of 1921, a national campaign to keep kids in school and, later, a two-volume set of American Legion-sponsored U.S. history books.

The Child Welfare Committee

At the Fourth American Legion National Convention on Oct. 20, 1922, in New Orleans, a resolution was passed to study the feasibility of building and operating a national home for children of Legionnaires who had been orphaned or were destitute. Also passed at that convention was a resolution for The American Legion to work closely at the local level to support physical education programs for children. This was the beginning of The American Legion Child Welfare Committee, which would call on local posts, districts and departments to establish their own committees to help young people become productive citizens, no matter their circumstances.

American Legion Endowment Fund

Soon after his election in September of 1924, American Legion National Commander James Drain begins a $5 million fund drive to establish an endowment to provide assistance to disabled veterans and to disadvantaged children. He achieves that daunting goal -- $71.2 million in 2018 U.S. dollars – by April of 1925. This fund later assists the Legion’s Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division and provides emergency Temporary Financial Assistance grants for military and veteran families with minor children at home. The American Legion hired Emma Puschner of St. Louis to serve as first child welfare director. She develops the “whole child” plan that seeks to ensure that all children of veterans have fair opportunities for home, health, education, character and opportunity. Puschner later became a national leader on family issues, juvenile delinquency and assistance for single mothers.

Children’s Billets and American Legion Orphanages

The American Legion envisioned no fewer than five major “children’s billets” across the country to go along with the institutions for children already functioning in Kansas and Michigan. The facilities, which would operate in New Jersey and were planned for Tennessee and California, were envisioned to be owned and operated by The American Legion National Headquarters. The Legion soon decided that such facilities, on a national scale, would not be as efficient as those run by local welfare agencies and foster care providers. The Legion opted to provide support for children’s homes rather than own and operate them, except in rare situations. The last of the American Legion youth facilities were in Oklahoma and Indiana and closed or were turned over to other agencies in the first decade of the 21st century.

The Wide Variety of Youth Programs

The portfolio of American Legion youth programs at the national, state and local levels are designed to strengthen minds, bodies and understanding for young people as they transition to adulthood, whether or not they join the U.S. Armed Forces. The American Legion sponsors hundreds of Junior ROTC programs throughout the country – and even around the world at American schools attached to military bases. American Legion Baseball, which originated in 1925 in South Dakota, has been promoting fitness, discipline and teamwork for generations. Boys State and Boys Nation arose at first to counter communist Young Pioneer camps in the United States and went on to prepare thousands of young men for public service. The National Oratorical Contest, which starts locally and finishes at a national championship, awards more than $138,000 in scholarships, and requires contestants to speak on the U.S. Constitution. Junior Shooting Sports, an official national youth program since 1991, has roots that reach back to Legion marksmanship teams of the 1920s. The Youth Cadet Law Enforcement program, which began in American Legion departments in the 1960s and 1970s, received national encouragement beginning in the mid-1980s and became an official program in 2016. Within each youth program is a connection to the founding American Legion interest to strengthen young people, educate them and increase their understanding of the values for which military men and women have fought.

Regional Field Representatives

As the 1930s progressed during the Great Depression, The American Legion established regional offices to conduct child welfare support across the country. Under Puschner’s leadership, the program put the Legion in the national spotlight on such issues as child labor laws, federal funding and charitable giving for child-welfare programs, education services for children in difficult circumstances, physical education and juvenile delinquency control. In the first decade of the Legion’s work in this area, more than 182,000 children received some kind of direct support from the Legion. During the Depression, American Legion child-welfare representatives reported working 10 to 20 cases a day.

Emma Puschner’s Legacy

Puschner became such a respected figure that she was called in by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to serve on New Deal committees that brought into existence such programs as Aid to Families with Dependent Children. In 1944, she appeared as herself in the popular radio show, “The Guiding Light,” about the problem of juvenile delinquency and how to solve it through community engagement. By the end of her career at the Legion in 1950, Emma Puschner’s various efforts with the Legion and the federal government are calculated to have provided $73 million in direct financial aid, assisting nearly 7.5 million children.

Dr. Garland Murphy’s Gift

In 1947, The American Legion Child Welfare Committee became a commission, and in 1953, a member of that commission – Dr. Garland D. Murphy of Arkansas, a former World War II combat surgeon and American Legion department commander – donated mineral and oil interests on 10,000 acres of land he owned in the Williston Basin of North Dakota and Montana to The American Legion. His one condition: that revenue from the property be used to help children in need. Thus was born The American Legion Child Welfare Foundation, a distinctive non-profit program that provides grants to other nonprofit, tax-exempt organizations to help young people in need.

The Child Welfare Foundation (CWF)

The first three CWF grants, totaling $22,500, were distributed to:

- The Delinquency Control Institute
- The National Association for Retarded Children
- The National Association for the Prevention of Blindness

The Child Welfare Foundation would continue to grow through charitable giving and award over $600,000 per year to organizations that help young people facing challenges that range from blindness to bullying and from cancer to homelessness. In its first 63 years, the Child Welfare Foundation awarded more than $15 million in grants.


The American Legion, according to its most recent consolidated post reports, issues more than $4 million in a year in scholarships to local high school students. These range from citizenship awards to Junior ROTC scholarships. At the national level, American Legion scholarships include the Legacy Scholarship for the children of military personnel who lost their lives or became 50 percent or greater disabled after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the Samsung Scholarship (an endowment seeded by $5 million from the South Korean electronics giant, in respect for U.S. military service since the Korean War), and separate scholarships for top participants in the Oratorical Contest, American Legion Baseball, Junior Shooting Sports and Boy Scouts.

Children & Youth Today

The American Legion’s Children & Youth programs represent one of the organization’s four pillars of service. The national Americanism Commission has oversight of scholarships, American Legion Baseball, Oratorical competition, Boys Nation, Junior Shooting Sports, Boy Scouts and Youth Cadet Law Enforcement programs. The national Children & Youth Committee has oversight of Temporary Financial Assistance, Family Support Network, the Child Welfare Foundation and The American Legion Endowment Fund. The American Legion’s advocacy of young people, from Special Olympians who receive Legion support in the Department of Illinois to potential U.S. presidents participating in Boys Nation, aims to provide what the founders described as a “square deal for every child.”