St. Paul organization spreads positivity as we head into the New Year

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After a difficult year, many are looking forward to a better 2021. An organization in St. Paul is spreading positivity during a time when so many need it.

“Life is about turning every obstacle, every challenge, into a glorious adventure,” Lizz Paulson, president of the St. Paul East Side Optimist Club, said.

She and her husband, Rick, are members, along with 10 others.

The group formed about six years ago as a member club of Optimists International, a service organization founded after World War I. They live by the Optimist Creed.

“How do you have a positive vision, optimistic outlook and bring out the best in each other and build community despite the struggles you might have?” Paulson explained.

She said they noticed this past year, with the pandemic, the greatest need seemed to be among seniors and youth.

“How do you uplift the mental health and emotional health of your community and make everyone feel appreciated, loved and remembered?” she asked. “How can we show love? How can we show compassion? How can we build up their lives? And by doing so we build up our own."

During 2020, the Optimist Club has also donated books to Little Libraries, sponsored car caravans for graduating high school seniors, participated in trash pickups and helped deliver candy bags to East Side families on Halloween.

They’ve also continued supporting the East Side Learning Center, which provides one-on-one tutoring to students struggling with reading.

“If they don’t catch up, they’re four times more likely to drop out of school,” Executive Director Chris Flippo said.

She said that during a normal year they serve about 300 students, each receiving about two to four sessions per week.

“It takes individualized attention because every child learns differently and every child’s brain is wired differently,” Flippo said. “Prior to the pandemic, our costs ranged from $1,200 to $1,500 a year to provide about 40 hours of tutoring for a child.”

Their costs have more than doubled during the pandemic as they’ve changed how and where they help students, she said. Up until this year, they tutored students at St. Paul Public Schools and other charter school buildings. They’ve now developed an online tutoring program.

Throughout this, the optimists have continued to serve as tutors and they’ve worked to recruit others as well. The club has provided grant money to the East Side Learning Center as well. The partnership started several years ago.

“I stay positive because of all of the people that want to make a difference for our children,” Flippo said.

During the holidays, St. Paul East Side Optimist Club members also made and donated toys. Paulson’s granddaughter, Kaylee-Anna Strong, was one of nearly a dozen kids who created artwork for 100 Christmas cards for seniors.

“I hope they’re happy,” Strong said. “Helping others is a good thing.”

Optimist Anita Johnson helped coordinate the effort.

“To be able to get a Christmas card was very special,” Johnson said.

She noticed how isolated senior citizens were during the pandemic and started speaking to many over Zoom to prevent them from being lonely.

“There was a woman here who hadn’t seen her grandchildren for over six months,” she said.

For Johnson, the last year has given her a new perspective.

“I’ve started to appreciate the quietness,” she said. “I’ve started to get back into reading again, listening to the birds, watching the leaves change, looking outside my window, whereas, having a cup of coffee a year ago was hurry up and drink your coffee, get going.”

KSTP asked Johnson and the Paulsons for their advice for staying positive in the New Year.

“Just to keep your head up,” Johnson said. “Just keep looking forward; ‘Yes, we’ve been through a really rough time, but we can also learn from this.”

“Frame the challenges into optimistic, positive point of view – I can learn something from this challenge, I can grow from this challenge, I can get through this challenge,” Lizz Paulson added.

Paulson said investing in your community helps improve positivity.

“Our mission is, through hope and a positive vision, to bring out the best in youth, their communities and in ourselves,” Paulson said.

The club is also challenging young people to share how they’ve stayed positive during the pandemic. Youth up to 19 years old (as of Oct. 1, 2020) can enter the St. Paul East Side Optimist Club spoken word competition through April 15. It provides an opportunity to win scholarship money. For more information, email

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