Optimist Clubs See Glass Half Full—Even in a Pandemic

Leaders of organization work to stay upbeat in face of declining membership, litany of dreadful news
By Steve Garbarino of the Wall Street Journal
Feb. 5, 2021 10:38 am ET

The Optimist International club hasn’t survived 110 years, two world wars, a Great Depression and untold other miseries and disasters by dwelling on the dark side of life.

Half full?

Even so, the past year has been a trying one for the pre-eminent glass-half-full organization. There has been a deadly global pandemic, deep political discord and, perhaps most vexing for the club itself, a membership that is “aging out,” or, as a pessimist might put it, “dying off.”

The club’s president, 63-year-old retired banker Mark Weinsoff, still found reason for some optimism when reached a few days after last month’s deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol. “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” he said.

Mr. Weinsoff sees it as his club’s mission to keep optimism alive and thriving in the face of the litany of bad news. “When bad things happen,” he said, “a pessimist reasons that ‘this always happens to me and it will happen again.’ An optimist says, ‘OK, now what do I do to move forward?’ ”

Optimist International was founded with a mission to guide “delinquent boys” to the right side of the tracks. Women were first admitted in 1987. The umbrella organization, based in St. Louis, oversees some 2,500 individual chapters around the world.

Over the years, though, as local chapters focused on events such as golf tournaments and fishing trips, interest among young people has declined. Individual chapters have been closing at a steady clip.

“Many of our clubs die because they fail to stay fresh, allowing themselves to become stale in membership,” said Benny Ellerbe, executive director of Optimist International.

“Peak membership was in the 1990s, and since then it’s been a slow but steady decline,” said Mr. Weinsoff. “We went from like 190,000 members to about 60,000 in the past decade.”
According to Jim Boyd, 63, the Optimists’ director of strategic growth, “1,088 clubs were lost in the past decade and 13 since October—the latter due to the pandemic.”
Club leaders, not surprisingly, remain optimistic. Over the past 10 years, 640 new clubs have opened, 17 of them in the past year, said Mr. Boyd, who lives in Urbandale, Iowa.

In interviews, a dozen club members from Minnesota to Montego Bay displayed their signature positive attitudes, filling their emails with exclamation points.
Les Lowery, 62, an Optimist official whose local chapter is in Gretna, La., boasted: “We have 10 new members in our club since October 1!!!! In Louisiana, we started two new clubs this year—one is a college club!!!!”

He said the club’s future feels secure. “We may cycle down a few years, but we will cycle back up the next,” he said. “We’re not going anywhere!”
“I have no choice but to be an Optimist after a year like 2020,” he noted.

A few members, displaying signature good cheer, even recalled some positive points to living through a pandemic. “I cooked more and really got into Cajun-style cooking,” said Mr. Ellerbe. “I’m a sci-fi freak so I caught up on lots of old ‘Star Trek’-type series.”

And there were family benefits. “The best thing that happened from the pandemic is my two adult children got in touch with us more often, because they were concerned about us being at-risk,” said Mr. Weinsoff.

Mekayla Jenkins, 21, is president of the Optimist club based at Northwestern State University in Louisiana. When a friend asked her last summer to kick-start the chapter, she said, “I nearly declined because I was drained from everything. But when you hit rock bottom, the only direction you can go is up. So I thought, ‘What can it hurt?’ ”

“The first initiative was surviving 2020, and getting my optimistic groove back,” she said.

‘The first initiative was surviving 2020,’ said Mekayla Jenkins, president of the Optimist club based at Northwestern State University in Louisiana.

While the picture in the U.S. remains challenging—in November the 42-year-old Waco, Texas, chapter closed due to Covid social-distancing strictures—group leaders say there is reason for hope internationally. There are 17 Optimist clubs in Nepal alone, and others in Bangladesh, Kenya, Uganda, Jamaica, Sri Lanka and Ghana.

In other countries, the membership skews younger. The worse-off the country, the more interest in opening a club, said Mr. Boyd.

Mr. Weinsoff, the president, believes the club needs to return to its roots to thrive in such uncertain times. “We’ve started a campaign to put optimism first, ahead of community and civil service,” he said. “Promote optimism as a way of life again. And it’s been proven in studies that optimists live longer.” Medical researchers have found that individuals with greater optimism are more likely to live longer lives.

To that end, many chapters now practice meditation and yoga, and virtual communication is taught in most of them.

“Our membership tends to be on the 50-plus side,” said Mr. Ellerbe. “But, miraculously, they have taken to the Zoom format like ducks to water.”

Jim Boyd, the Optimists’ director of strategic growth, said more than a thousand chapters have closed over the past decade, but many others have opened.

A few days after the Capitol insurrection, 113 members of the Roseville, Minn., chapter joined a Zoom call to hear a political author discuss “Lessons of the 2020 Election and the Future of American Politics.” Mr. Weinsoff said one of the group’s rules made for a conflict-free evening: “We avoid partisan politics and religion.”

The club’s international theme for 2021 is “Choose Optimism.” Many members say they have overcome serious setbacks at some point in their lives.

“It’s not how many times that you get down in life, but how many times you get up,” said Mr. Ellerbe. “Coming from a single mother, poor side of a small Louisiana town, first in family to go to college, first to ‘get out.’…I believe my personal motto is, ‘I’ve done so much with so little I can do anything with nothing at all.’ ”

Mr. Boyd says the club’s mission has never been more relevant.

“I believe we will survive because we live in a time when people are searching for optimism right now,” he said. “It is needed.”