The St. Jacobs Optimist Club is giving $10,000 to leadership programs and counselling services for St. Jacobs Public School students. From left, Optimist member Heather Weber, student Patrick Perry, Principal Kathy Mathers, student Rebecca Perry, and Optimist member Bob Wilbur.[Whitney Neilson / The Observer]
The St. Jacobs Optimist Club is giving $10,000 to leadership programs and counselling services for St. Jacobs Public School students. From left, Optimist member Heather Weber, student Patrick Perry, Principal Kathy Mathers, student Rebecca Perry, and Optimist member Bob Wilbur. [Whitney Neilson / The Observer]
Students at St. Jacobs Public School will not only return to a renovated school in September, but a slew of new leadership-oriented programs.

The St. Jacobs Optimist Club donated $10,000 for the initiative, $8,000 of which will go to programs in the school, and the remaining $2,000 will be used to provide access to kids who normally can’t afford it at the Woolwich Counselling Centre.

Principal Kathy Mathers said the club contacted her around Christmas and said they had money to give the school to create student leaders, but they needed ideas. She brought it back to staff and came up with four ideas, one being counselling.

“We’re running a FIRST Lego Robotics club that will then go into some of the competitions,” said Mathers. “So that has the programming, the engineering, the math, to enrich students. Another is that they’ve given us money for a series of authors to come in to promote literacy. The fourth part of that is directly leadership development with the older kids. And they’re going to sponsor some of the older kids going up to the leadership camp next summer.”

The robotics club and leadership development will be for the older students, but the literacy program and counselling will be open to all ages. Mathers said they don’t typically get funds to bring in authors, so she’s looking forward to that.

“We’re looking at developing kids in all of those areas, that’s the focus of this school and this has just given us extra resources to be able to really benefit from all of the outside things.”

Rob Perry, incoming Optimist Club president, said the organization started discussing the programming in late spring and they’re all set to go in September.

“Optimist International’s core function is bringing out the best in kids,” said Perry. “We’re not a general service club: we’re very focused, and kids are our mandate.”

The idea for the program came from the club’s discussion on how they could encourage kids to develop in academics, arts and culture, sports, and leadership. Perry said their goal is to encourage the best in kids in those areas.

“We wanted to choose things that the kids would not have access to in a general fashion, so that they would have exposure to many things and not just the standard things.”

He said this isn’t a single year engagement for the club. They’re looking at engaging with the school for the long term so as kids grow through those age groups they will benefit from all four programs.

They also have provided an Optimist Award to the school for a number of years, but this year they’re changing it because they want kids to engage by giving back to the community.

“So this year part of this leadership program we are giving a Grade 8 Optimist Leader Award and they’ll get a motivational book and $100 to donate to a charity of their choice,” Perry explained.

Bob Wilbur, a member of the club’s board of directors, said his hope is if they spend time having a positive influence on youth it will make the community better off overall.

Perry said leadership is important to their club, not in the singular sense of accomplishing things for yourself, but as part of a community. Mathers echoed that sentiment.

“We want to develop leaders, not bosses,” said the principal. “You roll up your sleeves and you work together as a team. You’re going in there with your heart and soul and you’re going to do it for something other than a personal reward. You’re going out there and doing it because it’s the right thing to do and that’s what this is fostering.”

Mary Wilhelm, executive director of the Woolwich Counselling Centre, said the most common reason kids come to counselling is because of anxiety.

“Anxiety is the highest issue for kids,” Wilhelm said. “They’re anxious about everything, things you wouldn’t want for your little guys.”

Children often come to counselling anxious about friends, school, family issues, and their siblings, she explained. A large part of this is because of the influence of social media, and the instant reward factor. There’s also more pressure on kids from parents to excel at a range of activities. Counsellors are now coaching parents to limit their children’s texting and computer time, and to focus less on them becoming the next big hockey star, and more on having fun.

Perry said the counselling aspect was important because it’s easy for them to reach out to kids who have opportunities already, but this way kids without that access will get the counselling and aid they deserve.