The Kirkwood Optimist Club was founded in 1946 as the Kirkwood Thursday Evening Optimist Club. The civic organization, which is affiliated with Optimist International, focuses its philanthropic efforts on the needs of youth in the community.
“You don’t join expecting to get back; you get involved, and good things come back to you naturally,” says Jim Baxendale, who has been a member for 33 years. “The mission is what really appealed to me. We help kids. We always have.”
The Optimist Club consists of people from all walks of life: doctors, attorneys, car salesmen, plumbers and funeral directors.
“We’ve got guys like me who joined when we were in our 30s. We’ve worked with men who have shown us the way and encouraged us to get involved,” Jim says. “We’ve worked alongside each other, and we’ve become friends."
“A lot of those guys are gone now, but I like to say that those who came before us set a great example. We stand on their shoulders, and that’s true in life: You stand on the shoulders of the people who came before you.”
Jim says the club is a nice diversion from what the members do every day as professionals.
“When we get together, there’s a fraternity; there’s a bond. Fun and fellowship are what sustains the whole organization,” he says.
Each meeting concludes with the reciting of the Optimist Club creed, which Jim says is a credo for how to live life. Promoting optimism (of course) by expecting the best, greeting everyone with a smile, and being too noble for anger, among other promises, the creed includes solid advice for living a positive life.
The Kirkwood Optimist Club has about 40 active members ranging in age from 30s to 90 years old. The members primarily live in the immediate area, but others come from surrounding suburbs as well.
The club’s largest fundraiser is the annual Christmas tree lot, which takes place at North Kirkwood Middle School in the parking lot. Over the last 60 years, the club has donated more than $300,000 to various youth organizations.
“What better way to get in the Christmas spirit than to buy a live Christmas tree? People want what you’re selling. How nice is that? It puts everyone in the [Christmas] spirit.”
Jim recalls an evening at the tree lot many years ago when the weather was less than ideal. The sleet and cold kept many customers away that night, but a family arrived to look at trees. Member Gregg Hilleren pulled his harmonica out of his pocket and began to play Christmas carols. The family knew at that moment that they were buying a tree from the lot.
Like many civic organizations, the Kirkwood Optimist Club has seen its share of a decline in membership. However, in more recent years, Jim says the club has continued to attract new people.
“People don’t place the emphasis on what used to hold communities together,” he says. “Society has become so fast-paced. … People are busy. We are a mobile society.”
Jim says the appeal of the Optimist Club is providing its members a way to give back to the community in an informal way. All the work the club does is on a voluntary basis.
One organization the club supports is the Kirkwood High School racquetball club. Racquetball Club moderator Michael Von Gerichten and his student-athletes help unload the Christmas trees each year when they arrive at the lot. In return, the Optimist Club makes a donation to the racquetball club to help cover expenses associated with the club sport.
The club hosts an annual Respect for Law event to honor first responders with a barbecue. The purpose is to thank firefighters, police officers and EMS for their service. The event is co-hosted with the American Legion Post in Kirkwood.
The club sponsors an Oratorical Contest during which junior high school students speak about a selected topic from Optimist International. The students have a chance to win a scholarship. The purpose of the contest is to teach the kids to be confident and poised while speaking in public.
The Kirkwood Optimist Club has contributed to the community by installing gas grills at all the fire stations in Kirkwood and an irrigation system at an area school’s sports field, and building a playground with a gazebo in Kirkwood.
“It sets an example. When your kids see Dad giving up his time—there’s the example that you want your kids to see.”
Jim says the club is always looking for new members and new ideas for helping the community. If you are interested in joining the Kirkwood Optimist Club, contact President Tim Medlock at 314-835-3501 or email@example.com.