OCEAN CITY – To mark the occasion of its 40th Anniversary of service to the community, the Ocean City/Berlin Optimist Club reviewed this week its rather extensive history of accomplishments over the last four decades.
On Saturday, April 28, the Ocean City/Berlin Optimist Club will celebrate 40 years of service and that same evening its Youth Foundation will celebrate 20 years of service.
The Optimist Club was founded on April 26, 1972 with 30 members to aid and encourage the development of youth, in the belief that the giving of one’s self in service will advance the well-being of man, his community and the world. The president at the time was John Lynch, owner of The Commander Hotel in Ocean City who is still a member of the club.
According to Optimist Charles Smith, the club is a chapter of the Optimist International and currently has 123 members, including 20 life members, and a budget of over $200,000 per year. The current club president is Lew Frey.
Funds are raised at the Seaside Boat Show as well as Springfest and Sunfest. In addition, the foundation awards scholarships to several Stephen Decatur High School seniors each year. Over $1,400,000 has been awarded to students in the past 23 years.
The club’s first major fundraiser was a big band dance at the Roland E. Powell Convention Center featuring the Warren Covington Big Band in 1972 and the efforts continued to grow from there.
In 1983, club member and retired Assistant Superintendent of Schools Don Hastings suggested that the club consider a boat show. In its first year Hastings organized, sold and directed the Seaside Boat Show. Club member Charlie Dorman is now the Chairman of the boat show.
“We just held the 29th Annual Seaside Boat Show this past February and sold out every inch of space [of the Roland E. Powell Convention Center],” Smith said.
In 1985, the Optimist Club became the local sponsor for Reading Is Fundamental (RIF) and the Chairman every year since then has been Roger Pacella, principal of Buckingham Elementary. In the last 26 years, the club has contributed to children over 140,000 books.
Also in 1985, member Jim Flaig convinced the club to begin the Youth I.D program. The focus of the effort is for the safety of the children from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade. “We have fingerprinted, videotaped, and taken a picture of over 36,000 children from Pocomoke to Selbyville,” Smith said.
In 1988, the club formed the Scholarship Lottery, which was replaced by “the Condo Lottery” where an Ocean City condominium was the lottery prize and proceeds were applied to the scholarships. The cost of real estate in Ocean City resulted in the Condo Lottery concept being replaced by the current cash prize format.
“Each year we sell $100 chances and giveaway $100,000 a year in prizes, and 100 percent of the proceeds goes toward scholarships for Stephen Decatur seniors,” Smith said. “Since we have started that lottery, we have contributed $1.5 million to over 270 seniors.”
Now, the scholarship program is run by the Youth Foundation, which was founded on Dec. 10, 1982. It is a nonprofit organization that organizes and coordinates the Youth Foundation Scholarship Program and shares in its administration with the Worcester County Board of Education.
In 2010, the Optimist Club added an endowment fund and is now raising funds to endow those scholarships.
“We have about $25,000 in our endowment fund already, and when we reach $100,000 in the endowment fund at 5 percent that means $5,000 will come out of that every year towards the scholarships forever, so we are guaranteed,” Smith said.
The Ocean City/Berlin Optimist Club also donates regularly to Worcester GOLD, Diakonia, Worcester Youth and Family Counseling Services, Boys and Girls Scouts as well as Ocean City, Ocean Pines, and Berlin recreation and all of the county schools.
An annual Essay Contest is sponsored by Optimist International to give young people the opportunity to write their own opinions regarding the world in which they live and make a contribution in. The club has had over 900 local kids participate in the event.
There is also an annual Oratorical Contest that has become the longest running program sponsored by the Optimist International. The local club has sponsored the Oratorical Contest since 1973 and has had over 1,800 local kids participate. “At the state level, there is a scholarship given away for those programs, and we have had two essay winners and five oratorical winners at the state level,” Smith said.
One of the largest events of the year for the Ocean City/Berlin Optimist Club is the WeXL Banquet held each May at the convention center where 1,300-1,400 people attend. The club sponsors Stephen Decatur High School in the event each year.
“We have sponsored over 10,000 honor students,” Smith said.
As the Optimists moves past its 40th anniversary, their objective is to continue all the current programs and scholarships as well as build the endowment fund to a point where it can help maintain the scholarships.
Smith has been a member of the Ocean City/Berlin Optimist Club since 1989 when he moved to the area and said the highlight of his membership was when the club reached $1 million in its scholarship fund.
“Nobody would have ever thought a service organization could raise that kind of money, and now we are at $1.5 million,” he said.
When The Dispatch asked Smith why he joined, he said, “It is interesting because why does anybody do this kind of stuff for free? When I was 18 years old, a man that I worked for paid for my first year of college … I worked for him and I was going to go into the military and he asked me to sign this form one day and when I asked why, he just said trust me, and two days later I came to work he handed me my college acceptance form … I would have never gone if wasn’t for that guy … I just figure that each one of us owes something back for some reason.”