On a cold January afternoon, a group of Beechview Elementary students gathered in their school’s media center to talk about funds they would raise and where those funds would go.
The school’s Junior Optimist Club is among 10 active in Farmington area elementary, middle, and high schools. Sponsored by the Farmington/Farmington Hills Breakfast Optimists, the service and leadership groups have adult supervisors but are primarily student-driven.
“We encourage them to do community service projects,” said Optimist Tom Neal. “A lot of them do projects that help build other skills.”
That’s certainly true of the Beechview group, which last year created “Happygrams” that students could purchase for a nominal fee and have delivered to friends. They used the proceeds to cook dinner for Farmington Hills firefighters.
“We learned how to raise funds, how to cook, and we gave a meal to firefighters,” said physical education teacher Meg White, who leads the group with first grade teacher Michele Burkmyre. “It was a full circle of crazy optimism.”
Beechview’s club has about 35 members in grades K-5. They take on three projects a year and right now are collecting board games for Foster Closet, a nonprofit that provides clothing, school supplies, toys, and other items for children in foster care. (If you’re interested in helping, you can drop off board games at the school, 26850 Westmeath Ct., Farmington Hills.)
“As these kids move on to middle school, they’ll become more self-sufficient,” said Anna Durham, who coordinates the Farmington/Farmington Hills Junior Optimist program. “It’s about bringing in leadership and community service at a young age. It sticks with them.”
White, who also leads the school’s Green Team, believes in getting kids involved early.
“Even kindergarteners have good ideas and can show compassion,” she said. “We’re letting them know even the little things matter. It’s important for kids to know they matter.”
In addition to building-level activities, the more than 100 Junior Optimists across the district also get together for special events, like marching in local parades. This month, they met for a team-building exercise led by a facilitator from the University of Michigan, and in April, locals will host a district convention at Harrison High School.
Harrison club president Thomas Lichtenberg, who joined the organization in fifth grade, now serves as the 2018 Michigan Junior Optimists International Governor. State board members help form Junior Optimist clubs across Michigan, even in places that don’t have adult groups. They also are connected with Junior Optimists in Uganda; Lichtenberg hopes to connect with those students this year via Skype.
It’s a long way from where Lichtenberg started; he admits that being a club member wasn’t high on his list at first. Then he got involved as an officer at East Middle School, where students raised $700 for breast cancer research.
When he made the move to Harrison, Lichtenberg found the school didn’t have a Junior Optimist chapter. It took some time to build, but in its second year, the club picked up speed and now has 18 members. Surprisingly, not everyone has the same sunny perspective.
“We had a pessimist as vice president,” Lichtenberg said. “He argued that his pessimism would strengthen our optimism. It taught us a valuable lesson about recruiting people who don’t fit the mold, but want to do community service. That’s what the organization is all about.”
Along with their own activities, high school club members help with elementary club events. Students earn community service hours required for graduation, but Lichtenberg feels he has gained much more from Junior Optimists, including a “second family.”
“It’s given me a great take on the world,” he said. “It’s really great to have an outlet just to be happy.”