Huntington Optimist Club earns Pioneer Festival committee accolade

Members of the Huntington Optimist Club accept the 2017 Arrowhead Award Saturday, Sept. 23, from the Forks of the Wabash Pioneer Festival Committee during a ceremony held at the festival. Celebrating the occasion are (from left) Rachelle Nightenhelser, festival co-chair; Optimist Club members Midge Decker, Jamie Groves, Paula Whiting and Jim Wilson; and Bonita Price, festival co-chair.
Members of the Huntington Optimist Club accept the 2017 Arrowhead Award Saturday, Sept. 23, from the Forks of the Wabash Pioneer Festival Committee during a ceremony held at the festival. Celebrating the occasion are (from left) Rachelle Nightenhelser, festival co-chair; Optimist Club members Midge Decker, Jamie Groves, Paula Whiting and Jim Wilson; and Bonita Price, festival co-chair. Photo by Rebecca Sandlin.

The Arrowhead Award, presented by the Forks of the Wabash Pioneer Festival committee to someone who has demonstrated its dedication to the community and faithfulness to the annual festival, was given this year to not just one person, but to the 50 or more people who make up the Huntington Optimist Club.

The award was presented to four members representing the club in a ceremony at the Pioneer Festival Saturday, Sept. 23.

Rachelle Nightenhelser, co-chair of the festival, says the Optimists have been dishing up pork dinners from their booth ever since the festival has been held at its current location.

She says the club serves up close to 1,000 sandwiches every year. It takes about 50 club members each year to man the booth; two members, Jim Wilson and John Regan, have worked the booth since the festival’s first year.

“They have fun; we have fun,” Nightenhelser said. “But like many of the food booths you see out here, that fun has a serious side. The money the club makes goes toward its mission of being a friend of youth.”

“Friend of Youth” is the club’s motto, and proceeds from the food booth go to fund scholarships, recognize outstanding students in the middle schools and high school, sponsor youth baseball teams and support local organizations such as the School Child Emergency Fund. The club also sponsored the Miss Huntington Scholarship Pageant for 53 years, until it was discontinued in 2015.

“So, you see, the members of the Huntington Optimist Club are in it for the long haul,” Nightenhelser added.

Paula Whiting, one of those who accepted the award on behalf of the club, said the Optimists were taken aback when they found out they were to be this year’s recipient.

“You do the same thing for over a number of years for the youth of the community, so when they came and said, ‘You’ve been chosen,’ we were a little flabbergasted,” she says. “We felt really privileged that they honored us for our commitment to the Pioneer Festival for the number of years that we’ve been out there.”

The Huntington Optimist Club was founded in 1960 by Gene Snowden, who served as its first president and is still a member. Snowden also served the community as a state senator, mayor and other positions, and the club continues to be made up of leaders in Huntington County.