Junior Optimist Club parent leader Sharon Tonnies stands with, from the left, Chase Tonnies, Noah Cahill, Veer Agarwal and Azizi Smidi. She said the club is beneficial for students “because kids learn they can give back and it only takes a small group to be able to make an impact, not only in the community and in our school, but also outside of where we live.”

Junior Optimist Club parent leader Sharon Tonnies stands with, from the left, Chase Tonnies, Noah Cahill, Veer Agarwal and Azizi Smidi. She said the club is beneficial for students “because kids learn they can give back and it only takes a small group to be able to make an impact, not only in the community and in our school, but also outside of where we live.”

Photo by Jonathan Shead


New gaga pit to appeal to middle school crowd

Junior Optimist Club builds, donates new park offering

By: Jonathan Shead | Farmington Press | Published June 12, 2019

 The new gaga ball pit, donated and built by the Farmington STEAM Academy’s Junior Optimist Club, is a regulation size pit that sits near the volleyball nets and horseshoes in Heritage Park.

The new gaga ball pit, donated and built by the Farmington STEAM Academy’s Junior Optimist Club, is a regulation size pit that sits near the volleyball nets and horseshoes in Heritage Park.

Photo by Jonathan Shead

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FARMINGTON HILLS — A new gaga ball pit has found a permanent home at Heritage Park, thanks to a donation from the Farmington STEAM Academy’s Junior Optimist Club.

After being selected as the 2018 winner of the Junior Optimist International’s “Reel Optimism” video contest with 1,682 votes, earning them a $1,500 grant, the STEAM Academy’s Junior Optimist Club decided to build and donate a gaga ball pit for Heritage Park. STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, arts and math.

“We chose it because we all, personally, had a lot of experience playing in gaga ball pits and how fun they can be,” said eighth-grade student Noah Cahill, who is the vice president of the STEAM Academy’s Junior Optimist Club. “We also recently made ours at school, and it was a big hit, so we figured it could work for Heritage Park, too.”

Gaga ball, which was first introduced in the United States by Israeli counselors at Jewish summer camps in the 1960s, is a derivative of dodgeball. Participants gather in a walled-pit, hitting a ball around with their hands while trying to strike other players on or below the knee, causing elimination. Players in the game dodge, run, jump and try to strike others with the ball, with the objective of being the last player standing. The game can be played with only two people or up to 20 at once.

In the game, you can’t pick up the ball, the ball can’t leave the pit and players only get one touch to push the ball toward another player.

As the winners of the video contest, the students worked hard deliberating over the last year how to use the grant money in a positive way for the community.

Together the club decided to use approximately $650 of the grant money on the materials to build the gaga ball pit, and the remaining money was used to buy two Cricut die-cutting machines for the school and the Farmington Hills branch of the Farmington Community Library.

The club spent five hours May 18 with 40 other community volunteers building the new pit in the park. Parents, city Special Services Department staff, a small group of Junior Optimists from North Farmington High School, and others all gathered together to build the pit from scratch, as well as two spectator benches for the sides.

Tonnies said she was touched by the amount of community support they received in making this project come to life.

“I think whenever you work together as a group, there’s power in that,” she said. “We had a lot of support from our parent community, and we were so impressed with how many parents got involved.”

Tonnies, however, gives the most credit to the students involved in the club for organizing everything needed to complete the project. Cahill and the club’s other student leaders worked on everything from comparative cost analyses for materials, signup sheets for volunteers, crowdfunding within the community for the necessary building tools and managing the budget to ensure they didn’t overspend.

Although the gaga ball pit is currently somewhat behind the volleyball courts at the park, Bryan Farmer, deputy director of special services for the city, said city staff have been talking about creating a trail through the woods that would lead right to the pit for easier access. Farmer said he is happy to have the new activity find its home at the park.

“There’s a lot of people who come to the park, so it’s great to have more activities, especially for that middle school-aged group that seems to really enjoy the game,” he said. “We have playground equipment and the splash pad there, but that’s really for the younger kids … so now the gaga ball pit is something that hits that age group.”

Overall, the Junior Optimist students hope the new gaga ball pit they built will provide other youth in the community with a space to go outside, be active and have fun with their friends.

“It’s something everyone can do no matter how much you love sports or don’t,” said eighth-grade student Veer Agarwal, the secretary of the STEAM Academy’s Junior Optimist Club. “It’s a place where people can go to create memories, because they’re hanging out together instead of being on their phones, and that’s really important.”

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