Groups of students in brightly colored t-shirts huddled around lunchroom tables at in Farmington Hills Saturday morning, building villages out of Legos.
The exercise was part of the 2012 Michigan District Junior Optimist Octagon International (JOOI) convention, a gathering of students from some of the state's 33 clubs. Fourteen Farmington area elementary, upper elementary and middle schools host a chapter of the student service organization.
District Governor Taylor Garland, 17, of Southfield, oversaw the Lego competition, which had just one catch.
"We break them up into groups, and we tell them they have to build a village ... we added something, that is has to be eco-friendly," Garland said. "But they don't get to see the scoring sheet."
Without knowing how they'll be judged, students get very creative, she added. In addition to houses and stores, the winning village included a parks and recreation building, a recycling center and a wind farm. The project also encouraged teamwork and communication.
'Bringing out the best in kids'
Optimist International's Michigan district governor Ray Finocchio, who attended the Saturday event, said the Junior Optimist clubs fit hand-in-glove with the organization's identity.
"That's who we are, a friend of youth," he said. "Bringing out the best in kids is our mission ... This is a way that we can nurture children and provide them with values to help them grow up to be good, responsible citizens and, hopefully, follow the example we've set by giving back to their communities."
The clubs already give back, Finocchio added, as they all do service projects throughout the year.
Vernoica Thomas, who leads the Junior Optimist Club, said she got involved because she wanted her daughter Sydnei, a 3rd grader, "to see the importance of community work and how everything she does can impact the community."
"It really empowers the kids," she said of the program. "They come up with the ideas, and they execute them with minimal facilitation."
Because the club is open to the whole school, kids from all grade levels interact with each other, Thomas said.
"When we started, I was nervous about the kindergarteners working with the older kids, and being shy," she said. "They jump in just as much as the 4th graders."
To learn more about Farmington-Farmington Hills Junior Optimist clubs, visit f2hjunioroptimists.org.