A program the Independence Optimist Club calls “the best kept secret in town” is making a difference to third graders in the Independence school system.

A program the Independence Optimist Club calls “the best kept secret in town” is making a difference to third graders in the Independence school system.

“To see the look on their faces tells it all,” says Optimist Club Vice President Dan Cunningham of the free dictionaries the service club distributes each fall in all 13 elementary schools in the district.

“They are so excited,” he says of the students.  To them,“It’s not like, ‘Oh, just another book.’ They are all wired up about getting their own dictionary ... and to see their faces makes you feel like you are making a contribution to our kids. I feel like it is a project that when you do it, you are making a difference.”

This year, under the leadership of James “Jim” Kuhn, the club distributed 600 copies of “A Student’s Dictionary & Gazetteer” to the following schools: Benton, Blackburn, Bryant, Korte, Ott, Randall and Three Trails. The Sugar Creek Optimist Club provides the other district schools with dictionaries.

Jim, who has spearheaded the dictionary project for the past five years, says the Student’s Dictionary is primarily designed for schools, in part, because of the wealth of information it contains:

Biographies of U.S. presidents, The Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, facts about planets in the solar system, maps of the seven continents, informative facts about the 50 states, weights and measures and facts about countries and locations.

It also contains words for large numbers, common standard international unit symbols, periodic table of the elements, multiplication table chart, Roman numerals, history of Old Glory and more.

Jim says the best way he can explain the 524-page soft-cover book printed by The Dictionary Project Inc. of Sullivan’s Island, S.C., is that “it’s designed for a student to use ... and contains a wealth of information.”

By providing youngsters with dictionaries, the Optimists are practicing good citizenship, Dan says, because “youth are our future.”

Though the motto of the international organization is “Friend of Youth,” Independence Optimists weren’t always befriending youth with their dictionary give-aways.

It wasn’t until the late Alice Lindgren, a retired home economics teacher, presented the concept of dictionary give-aways to club members during her presidency in the mid-1990s that the project took root and blossomed.

While attending a district meeting in Springfield, Alice was introduced to the dictionary program for the first time and became infatuated with it.

“We don’t have one, but we are going to have one now,” Dan recalls Alice telling the membership upon returning from Springfield.

So excited was she, that en route home from the district meeting, she and another female member of the club stopped at “burgs” along the way, purchasing as many dictionaries as they could find and paying for them out of their own pockets. Alice also purchased 100 dictionaries at an Independence discount store.

“That shows how strongly (Alice) felt about the cause,” says Dan, who believes the program started “either in 1995 or ’96.”

While the exact launch date is fuzzy in the minds of Dan and Jim, the first school to receive dictionaries isn’t.

“Thomas Hart Benton was the first one we delivered (dictionaries) to,” says Jim, recalling Floyd Hastings was the  principal then. Later that week, the club presented dictionaries to Blackburn, Ott, Bryant and Procter.

Says Jim: “We just did those five schools originally. When Independence took (over) the schools in Kansas City, we picked up Three Trails and Korte. And then we picked up Randall, which was in the Independence School District.”

Realizing the importance of the dictionary program,  the club adopted it as its No. 1 project and has been supporting it financially ever since through such fundraisers as its pancake dinner, its chili and soup dinner and its food booth at the Santa-Cali-Gon Days Festival.

“I think the Optimists’ dictionary program is something that we can really hang our hat on and be very proud of, says Dan, who joined the club in 1993 and was elected president the following year.

“The program jump starts our year,” he adds, noting the Optimists’ year begins in October. And “a couple of weeks later, we are delivering these dictionaries ... in the schools ... as a hands-on project and (the children) are seeing an adult presence from a club that is just for them. We are friends of youth.

As far as Dan and Jim can tell, the program is not only a hit with the children, but also with the teachers.

“I have had several of the teachers call me and say how much they enjoyed getting them,” Jim says, adding: “A lot of teachers I have talked with at the schools say they really enjoy getting the dictionaries. They really do. And they say they use them a lot.”

Jim recalls asking a teacher, “With all the computers now, you probably don’t use (the dictionaries)?”

Her reply: “Oh, yeah. We use those dictionaries a lot more than you would think we would use them.”

Although the dictionaries are the personal property of each student, not all teachers allow that the books be taken home. One teacher told Jim she makes her students leave their dictionaries in the classroom so they will have something for reference.

Dan and Jim say the thing about the dictionary distribution that probably gives them the greatest joy is the thank-you notes the club receives from the happy, thankful recipients.

“The teachers have them write the thank-you notes, says Dan, who has read many of the hand-written letters. “They don’t tell them what to write. The kids write from the heart.”

Like a letter from Eryn, a student from Korte Elementary School (original spellings):

Dear Optimist Club, Thank you for the Dictionary. I really apreiSate it. I look words up in there all the time. My two favorite parts of the Dictionary are the bigest word in the english langenge . And also the sign langenge. Thank you so much for giveing us the Dctionary .

Alysyn, also a third grader at Korte, writes:

Dear Optimist Club, Thank you for giving us dictionarys. Your a true friend. Your really nice to give us Dictionarys. It was nice of you to do this. I like my new dictionarys. Are you going to do this next year?

This year, the Optimists spent $1,100 to purchase 600 dictionaries, and they hope to have another $1,100 to spend next year. And to Alysyn, who asked, “Are you going to do this next year?” the club can reply, “Yes, Alysyn, we’re coming back next year.”