Since 1971, the Optimist Club of West St. Paul has been bringing out the best in kids. After being recognized by the city for their 50th anniversary, they’ve now embarked on their 51st year and awarded the Optimist of the Year to Garlough Environmental Magnet School instructional coach Kelsey Thornton.
The award came during the school’s first Hoot ‘n Holler assembly since March 2020, when Thornton was surprised with cowbells—a tradition for the surprise Optimist of the Year reveal—flowers, balloons, and Garlough students singing “No Other Place Like Garlough.”
“I am so grateful for the Garlough family,” Thornton said. “You have helped lift me up these last five years. You all inspire me every day with what you do for our students and our families.”
Thornton’s positive attitude, including her humor, compassion, and hard work to navigate the uncertainty of the pandemic, led to her nomination and selection.
Optimists of the Year
Thornton joins a number of other community members recognized as Optimist of the Year going back to the local club’s first recognition in 2006. Winners are nominated by the community and selected by the Optimist Club of West St. Paul.
“You’ve got to have that glow,” said Optimist Club member Chuck Spavin, when asked what it takes to be an Optimist of the Year. “I can walk through a crowd now and I can almost pick out who I think are the real optimists, because they have a glow about themselves.”
Here’s a list of previous Optimist of the Year recipients:
- 2006 – Madeline Perron, reading buddy at Moreland
- 2007 – Donald Vance, instructor at Vessey Leadership Academy (Pioneer Press)
- 2008 – Carol Southward, children’s librarian at Wentworth Library
- 2009 – Jo Zimmel, elementary gym teacher
- 2010 – Bill Heinemann, chess instructor (see our 2020 interview)
- 2011 – Pete Cleary, Dodge Nature Center
- 2012 – Wayne Ball, youth sports coach
- 2013 – Betty Notto, YMCA
- 2014 – Joanne Binder, Heritage volunteer
- 2015 – Laura Vaughan, West St. Paul Police Department
- 2016 – Maria Pasquerella, Garlough teacher
- 2017 – Jim, Julie, and Kaela Bader, volunteers at Pilot Knob (KDWA)
- 2019 – Cheryl Bergstrom, Optimist Club (Insight 7)
- 2020 – Jessi Owens Keller, West St. Paul Royalty organizer (FB)
“I think there’s really a resurgence in people wanting to do something that benefits the community,” Spavin said. “I’ll call it a renaissance of feelings toward, ‘Let’s do something good. Let’s give back something to the communities we’ve been raised in, the communities we work in, the communities where we have our businesses.’”
What’s an Optimist?
Not to be confused with optometrists, the Optimists International was founded in 1919 and is defined by the Optimist Creed, a set of positive and affirming values members promise to uphold.
“When we wake up in the morning and we look in the mirror, we’ve got two choices. Do we want to be positive today? Or do we want to be a pessimist?” said Spavin. “We know now that pessimists literally don’t live as long as optimists.”
That’s not spin, it’s science. People with an optimistic outlook live 11-15% longer, in addition to a reduced risk for depression, heart disease and other chronic diseases.
“There’s so much negative noise out there. I think people are stepping back and saying, ‘There’s got to be something I can do to make a difference,’” Spavin said. “If you make a difference with just one child, I think that’s a wonderful accomplishment.”
What Do Optimists Do?
Far from sitting back and being perpetually positive, local Optimist Clubs take on varying projects to support kids. The flagship project of the West St. Paul club is the annual spelling bee. They were approached by the school district nearly 30 years ago to take on the spelling bee and have been hosting it ever since. They’re the only Optimist Club in Minnesota to hold a spelling bee. The winner advances to a regional competition and can eventually go to the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C.
“We’ll have kids come back years later, after they’ve gone through the spelling bee or one of the other projects we put on, and they’ll come back and tell us how that made a big difference in their lives at the time,” said Spavin.
The West St. Paul Club also does a speech and essay contest, the West St. Paul Sings competition that feeds into Minnesota Sings, Operation Thank You to send letters to service members, and the annual Optimist of the Year award. They’ve also held candidate forum events for local elections.
“Obviously, kids are our future,” Spavid said. “If we start bringing up a group of kids that are very optimistic about life, optimistic about what they can do for themselves, what they can do for society, what they can do in their communities—that’s a win-win for everybody.”
Join the Club
The Optimist Club of West St. Paul meets on the first and third Wednesday of every month at 5 p.m. at Dunham’s Bar. New members are always welcome.
“Come check us out,” Spavin said. “The first taco is on us.”
You can learn more about the club from their Facebook group.
Award photo courtesy of the Optimist Club of West St. Paul.
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