We Are in This Together.

When a global pandemic struck our community, a group of engaged youth in our community took action. What happened next was a textbook example of how sustained mentorship and support can empower and inspire youth to see a need and take action. The Junior Optimist Club of Chatham did just this when COVID-19 shut down the global economy and as a result many programs and initiatives helping vulnerable communities in Chatham-Kent shut down as well. Partnering with the United Way and Chatham-Kent Public Health, the Junior Optimists made an immediate and positive impact when it was needed most, with a donation to the CK Student Nutrition Fund.

So how did the Junior Optimists find themselves in this admirable position to help others?

The Junior Optimist program was launched about three years ago by the Optimist Club of Chatham. Optimist Club members are a familiar site at many events in Chatham-Kent like Retrofest, running their popular fry truck with the Junior Optimists. The Club’s primary focus is helping youth, sponsoring soccer teams or minor hockey, school trips and related support for students who may need some extra help financially. They also sponsor the “VIP” program for drug awareness and prevention for Grade 5 students.

Several years ago the Optimists faced a challenge that many service clubs are facing across Canada. They wanted to attract and retain younger members, especially since their Club mandate was to help youth. Optimist Club member Jeremy Hills, a Grade 7-8 teacher in Merlin, describes how they approached the challenge. “We knew high school students needed to complete their volunteer hours, and since I teach grades 7 and 8 I could start asking around with my students”, says Hills. “Our club was very supportive of getting new junior members and encouraging their family support. I knew of several former students and their families, so I approached them to see if they would be interested in getting their volunteers through us, and contribute to projects that interested them.”


The Optimist Club's recognizable fry truck that can often be Chatham-Kent's many festivals


The results were almost immediate. After Hill’s initial conversations, the Optimists soon had six Junior charter members! “We now have fifteen Junior Optimists between grades 9 to 12,” says Hills. “They are considered full members, they attend monthly meetings and run several fundraisers themselves. This includes the famous fry truck. We pay for their food safety and handling certificates, which also helps them find outside employment. The money they raise goes into their own bank account within the Club’s main account. They discuss and decide what projects they want to fund, which is a great way for them to learn more about the needs of our community.”

And while they receive help and support from the senior members of the club, the Junior Optimists are directly involved in club programming and activities. Junior Optimist Ethan DeNure explains, “Our fundraising techniques typically involve selling food at community events like RetroFest or Youth Day out of our club fry truck. We are known around town for our delicious french fries and hamburgers! We also attend track and field events during the school year as vendors.”

Projects the Junior Optimists have supported include sponsoring bikes for youth day activities, sensory toys for the Chatham-Kent Children’s Treatment Centre as well as the Chatham-Kent Health Alliance youth mental health program. Most recently they have been supporting the United Way Student Nutrition Program – they had all used the program at school. When COVID-19 hit, the first thing they thought about was this program, and families struggling with food access during the crisis.

As Junior Optimist DeNure shares, “The donation to the United Way is one of the many initiatives that the Optimist Junior Program tackled this past year.”

What happened next is a perfect example of how our community connections can help create community compassion and benefit.

Mr. Hills teaches the son of Lyndsay Davidson, who works at the Chatham-Kent Public Health Unit and helps facilitate the CK Student Nutrition Fund, a partnership between the Health Unit and United Way.  Davidson reached out to Hills and described the challenges facing the Fund, as a result of the COVID-19 restrictions. Hill emailed the Junior Optimist group and they took it from there.

The Junior Optimists had money in their account and knew the Fund was facing a serious situation. Junior Optimist Ethan DeNure explains: “Every single one of the Junior members votes on our online group messaging platform and act based on that outcome. Needless to say, this particular vote was unanimous. I think we were very motivated for this cause due to our connection with the youth of our community, and having the opportunity to witness first-hand the benefits.”

The group decided to donate $500, which is almost half of their total savings!

“They wanted to go big or go home,” according to Hills. “They wanted to make a difference and make sure the money was available to help other kids. They see the other side of the coin and know some of their neighbours are struggling.”

Their track record of supporting their fellow students was impressive. Last year they donated money to Syrian refugee families so their children could attend the popular Muskoka Woods leadership camp. They clearly see the need and making their own decisions about how to immediately address that need.

“Our decision to work with the United Way and the Public Health Unit to provide less fortunate youth with food via the school snack program was voted on in the same way as all of our donations. Knowing that we are helping to fill young children’s bellies is extremely rewarding.” says Ethan DeNure.

This global pandemic has reinforced the need for all of us to look out for each other, and help others in need, when we can. The Junior Optimists are wonderful examples that anyone can make a difference, no matter the age or experience. As Ethan explains, “Something I think people should know about the Optimist Junior Program is that we help so many different people in so many different ways. One of my favourite parts of being part of the club is when we get a thank you message from someone that we have helped.  Hearing it read out loud at our monthly breakfast meeting, and knowing we are changing lives with every hamburger and hot dog we sell, is very rewarding and is what keeps us all going. We highly recommend to everyone that they get involved in any way possible, not only to help others, but to help yoruself!”

After this positive experience helping others during this uncertain time, what message would Ethan like to share with his community? “A positive message that we would like to share with our community would be to stay home and try to make the best of the current situation. It is important that we all stay positive and do our best to flatten the curve by following the rules. We’d also like to remind everyone to thank those front line workers who are putting their lives at stake every day to keep our world functioning.”

With young leaders like Ethan and his fellow Junior Optimists seeing a need, taking action and helping others in our community, our future is bright indeed. The generous donation of $500 ensured that 25 children received access to fresh food through this grocery card program.

The COVID-19 CK Student Nutrition Food Assistance Fund has helped feed 796 children across CK since March 18, 2020.