Where Patriotism Meets Plush
New Program from Coast to Coast Raises Money for Military, Veterans and Their Families
By Key Snodgress
The amusement industry is well-known for giving back and if you were at IAAPA or Amusement Expo, you may have noticed an idea that was just beginning to gather steam before Covid slammed the brakes on the industry’s plans. Originally rolled out with great fanfare at IAAPA (complete with an Army Color Guard marching through the exhibit hall and leading a Pledge of Allegiance at the Elaut Group’s booth), Military Mascot plush and themed cranes are ready for deployment!
The Military Mascot toys, available through Coast to Coast Entertainment, are cute and attractive in and of themselves. Designed by a disabled veteran, they’re available in sizes from 6” (the most popular size) going up to jumbo 30” versions, with five different mascots, one representing each branch of the U.S. Military (see photo and caption below to learn more).
But behind all the cuteness is a powerful purpose: helping wounded, ill, and injured military, veterans, and their families reintegrate into civilian life. 100% of the profits from the sale of Military Mascots go right to helping these service people on their journey, as well as their families and caregivers, offering a wide variety of services to help them with employment, business, education, wellness, PTS and other treatments, creative therapy and more.
This important work, helping about 30,000 service members each year, is accomplished through the U.S. Military’s Warrior Care program, which is supported by the U.S. Veteran’s Chamber of Commerce (USVCC). Medal of Honor recipient Paul “Bud” Bucha chairs the organization. The USCVCC also provides support for the Department of Defense Warrior Games in which wounded, ill and injured service members from all branches compete domestically between service branches. Top competitors go on to the international Paralympic-style Invictus Games competition created by the U.K.’s Prince Harry.
Enter the Coin-Biz
How did the amusement industry get connected? Paula Rinker, Coast to Coast’s Entertainment’s merchandise and promotions manager, said she came across the Military Mascot plush and “just loved it.” Originally, she thought she’d simply find a way to incorporate it into their merchandise programs. But when the plush vendor who was already working with Military Mascots told her how the profits supported injured veterans and their families, she was all-in: “I thought that was amazing and even more of a reason someone should buy it,” and, naturally, for players to want to win it.
Rinker then thought it would be great to build a themed program around the plush toys and met with Elaut Exec VP of Sales Tony Maniscalco and Elaut Group USA President Trevor Gianaris. “It all just sort of happened. We were just throwing out ideas…brainstorming…and here we are.” So now, in addition to offering the Military Mascot toys, Coast to Coast is also producing themed Military Mascot cranes, which can be bought through the factory’s distributors. A donation will be made to the Warrior Care program by Elaut for every crane sold.
Rinker and the Elaut Group’s team have been closely working with Neal Lawrence, who runs the Military Mascot program (he’s also a co-creator of the plush). “Neal and the plush vendor were discussing selling these in the Pro Football Hall of Fame gift shop or just setting up a table and maybe we could help them. I asked them who’s going to man all that and suggested, ‘Wouldn’t it be better to have a crane?” she asked. “What people outside the industry don’t realize that a crane is a portable storefront – all you need is a footprint, electricity and an operator. I explained that using a crane would be easier to manage and bring more money into the program, plus the cranes would add an element of fun. Even if you set it at winner-every-time for the price you want to get, you will have players because it’s for an excellent cause.”
And then they took it a step further.
“We thought about locations that didn’t have operators and it occurred to us it would be a good fit to provide vocational training to disabled, injured or returning veterans to help them set up and run their own businesses as they transition into civilian life,” she said. “These would be individuals identified to us by the USVCC and Warrior Care. They’d provide the candidates and we’d provide the training.
“These veterans would operate games specifically on military bases, USOs and other locations where, again, there aren’t operators already,” Rinker added. Initially, the training might have to be virtual, but the grand plan is to bring the veterans to Elaut’s Florida HQ for training. The program’s Neal Lawrence envisions being able to find sponsors to pay for transportation and other expenses for the traveling soon-to-be crane operators.
Chairman/Group CEO Eric Verstraeten is all-in, too. “Elaut believes in the power of community. Even in difficult times, we feel that it is our social responsibility to support those who serve,” he said, adding, “We would love to bring Military Mascot plush and cranes to American military bases across Europe –– and worldwide –– to give this program a broader base of exposure.”
Added Maniscalco, “Military Mascots are more than plush toys. They are a tribute to the men and women who serve and protect our country. It is a small way to acknowledge their sacrifices.”
Growing the Presence
“We have a reach that the USVCC doesn’t have…and their partnerships would help us place games in non-traditional places, too,” Rinker explained. “For example, this Military Mascot program is also being discussed with the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the International Hot Rod Association. The timing is a bit unfortunate because of the coronavirus but we’re looking at putting these machines in football stadiums and in the concession area at races. This program is getting a lot of strong partnerships.”
Rinker also believes their involvement can also help established operators gain some inroads and provide new route opportunities with larger corporations that sponsor the Military Mascot and Warrior Care program.
For example, at the same time our industry was gathering in New Orleans for the Amusement Expo, the NFL and the Pro Football Hall of Fame, in association with the USVCC, held a dinner in New York to raise money for the U.S. Invictus Team athletes. Sponsors of the evening included Bank of America, T-Mobile, GEICO and CVS Health/Aetna. As Rinker explained, our industry sometimes falls outside the radar of larger companies and institutions. Associations like this can help.
Just how did the Military Mascot program get going in the first place? The organization’s Neal Lawrence, co-creator of the mascots, said it started by brainstorming with the head of marketing for the USVCC, Adrian Guglielmo, about doing a fundraiser for the Warrior Care Program through the group.
“Because I had a promotional/entertainment background, we discussed the need to do a fundraiser specifically targeting Warrior Care,” Lawrence recounted. “Guglielmo said nobody had ever done a mascot for the military branches before so, we started thinking about it. I had a friend in the plush business and I asked if he could do a ‘plush this and plush that,’” he said with a chuckle. “He answered, ‘I can do a plush anything!’ and that’s how it started.”
To say Lawrence is enthusiastic is an understatement. He believes in the program and has immense gratitude for all involved. He explained: “The USVCC is the backbone of Military Mascots. They’re a very active organization that raises money for the Warrior Care program, their essential giveback initiative, and we’re fortunate to be able to ride their coattails. They came to us and we just started to get out there and market. Along the way, I’ve met some of the greatest, most patriotic people in the world, people who have their hearts in the right place, like Paula, Trevor and the Elaut Group team. So, we’re extending things well beyond just selling a crane and getting one on a military base. We’re putting veterans to work who aren’t working,” Lawrence enthused.
In addition to support from coin-op, Lawrence said they got tremendous orders from amusement parks after IAAPA. (He estimated they were in the $600,000 to $700,000 range with expectations of maybe even hitting the $1 million mark this year.) “But at this point,” he said, “this year’s season is pretty much lost and we’ll have to set our sights on next year.”
Lawrence said, “It was always our intention to use our contacts to get Military Mascot cranes in military installations, commissaries, recreation centers, VA hospitals, etc., and now with the pretty much non-existent amusement park market, we have made this our number one priority. Military Mascots was very proud to collaborate with Paula and Coast to Coast for their crane games line. Paula understood the mission from the very beginning and was always featuring the great work the Mascots can do before pushing a Mascot crane or any other crane.
He continued: “It was the Elaut Group’s idea to train veterans in cities that get cranes from Coast to Coast either for the private sector or on military installations, providing much-needed employment for veterans. Paula, Tony and their team are willing to create that training program along with the assistance of the USVCC and Military Mascots. How cool!”
While some of their plans are most certainly in a holding pattern due to the pandemic, they’re not going to let that stop them. “The ideas are great, hearts are in the right place, and patriotism is there, but the world is saying, ‘I just can’t talk to you right now,’” Lawrence said. “But we’re not going to give up. That would definitely not be our way.”
To learn more about the program, or order Military Mascot plush or a crane, contact Paula Rinker at Coast to Coast via email at [email protected] (coasttocoastcranes.com or www.elautusa.com). To learn more about the Military Mascots, Warrior Care, the Invictus Games and the USVCC, here are the links: www.militarymascots.us; usvcc.org; warriorcare.dodlive.mil and invictusgamesfoundation.org. The U.S. Invictus Games team has its own Facebook page at www.facebook.com/USatInvictusGames. They welcome your interest and contributions.