Optimist Club contest winner describes journey of finding the good in people

By: Taylor Christensen | Royal Oak Review | Published March 22, 2024


ROYAL OAK — “Masks for Meals” was the primary topic of Connor Kalkanis’ speech that won him first place at the Royal Oak Optimist Club Oratorical Contest on March 13 at the Metro Detroit Youth Club.

Kalkanis, a senior from Detroit Country Day High School, which is part of the Royal Oak Optimist Club’s area, referenced his own experience of spreading optimism to convince the audience, and judges, “How to Change the World with Optimism,” which was this year’s contest theme.

His speech focused on his and his brother’s idea to create “Masks for Meals” in 2020, when people were struggling to get food on the table amid the pandemic.

“When it was Thanksgiving 2020, people were lining up in food lines because of widespread food insecurity that was resulting from the pandemic. My brother and I felt the need to help in any way we could,” he said. “That experience stuck with me ever since that.”

This personal feat of raising awareness and money for those in need in his community taught him the power of spreading positivity.

Without his belief in the good in people, the charity would have never been started, according to Kalkanis. Thinking positively, that people are good and want to help others, is the driving force behind “Masks for Meals.”

“We would have never had the idea to move things forward because of the doubt that would be there otherwise, so by being optimistic, one thing led to another and we were able to actually make a real impact in our community,” he said.

This year, five middle school and high school students competed in the contest.

Richard Bremer, the Royal Oak Optimist Club Oratorical Contest chair, said that the students did phenomenal jobs and that the contest was a good learning experience for them.

“It’s nice to give them the opportunity to be able to speak in front of crowds,” Bremer said. “Public speaking is a good skill to have, and they don’t often get that kind of opportunity.”

The top three contestants received a medal and a monetary prize following their speeches.

First place received $500, second place received $200 and third place received $100.

Bremer said the top two contestants will move on to the area-wide contest. The students will be given another topic and then construct a new speech. This contest will be held on a Zoom call.

Winners of the area-wide contest will be eligible to win scholarship money to go toward their choice of college or university and will move forward to the districtwide contest in Battle Creek.

Kalkanis is grateful for winning this contest and said he is grateful for his teacher, Mrs. Beverly Hannett-Price.

“She has been a longtime mentor of mine who encouraged me to get involved in public speaking and introduced me to the Optimist Club in the first place,” he said.

Going forward, Kalkanis said, he has already secured his college future; getting into Harvard has been one of his lifelong dreams, and he accomplished just that.

“I am very excited about it and very fortunate,” he said. “I want to pursue a career in medicine, specifically neurosurgery.”

Kalkanis believes that his time with the Optimist Club and dedication to “Masks for Meals” has helped him decide on this career path.

“Seeing firsthand that people are good and people want to help each other really further advised me towards a career in medicine,” he said. “As a surgeon, I would be able to directly improve the lives of patients who are in need and battling life-threatening diagnoses.”

“That’s what this journey of the charity that I founded was all about: helping people,” he said.

The area-wide contest will be taking place on April 6. Detroit Country Day seniors and first- and second-place winners Kalkanis and Zachary Rodger will both be competing to make it to the Battle Creek district competition.