The Mallard Creek Optimist Club has been through a lot since 1971 and has seen people and families come and go. It has nurtured kids for generations and has grown into the state's largest Optimist Club through hard work and an unwavering dedication to the children in the community.
The club now operates the baseball facilities where the Mallard Creek barbecue is held, and if you go there on most any weekend, you will probably see Tommy Oehler maintaining the fields, cutting the grass or helping out in some way.
Oehler, 72, is the only original member who still serves on the board and is active in the day-to-day operations.
"When I first came to this area, there wasn't anything out here as far as athletic fields. We started it out just as a place where we could get kids outside playing baseball," said Oehler. "It went from a handful of teams to six to 12 and it has been growing ever since.
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"I don't think we were thinking of starting something that would grow so big. We wanted our kids to be able to play ball in an organized way, which is all we were thinking of. It is wonderful that it has grown into this, it is really neat."
Oehler was part of the 1957 North Mecklenburg High School state championship baseball team, the school's first state title, and went on to play at Wingate. He and the other original founders started out with a few baseball fields on the land that is now the Harris Teeter on Ridge Road.
They started making money to support the new organization any way they could, through hosting a weekend fish fry to selling sandwiches and fruit. The club, and often times Oehler himself, still does all of the maintenance.
The organization has grown to include five baseball divisions, eight basketball leagues, two softball divisions, cheerleading and football.
"It is like any good organization or company in any line of work," said Oehler. "You have to have good people running it and at the top and that is something we have always been able to do."
Club is growing
The Optimist Club started small and now includes 140 member families. It has grown to become the biggest Optimist Club in North Carolina, according to President Stew Mallard, and has been named a quadruple distinguished club, the highest honor and a rare achievement for recreational organizations.
"I have seen thousands of families come through here and we have been successful at getting new members and keeping things going," said Mallard. "We have had several D-1 baseball and basketball players come through and I expect we will have more."
"It is all about giving the kids a chance to play, though. It has always been founded on that."
Kids are eager
The Mallard Creek high school baseball team set a record for wins this past season and had their best year ever. Many of their players, including the entire starting infield, grew up playing together on the Optimist Club fields.
Maverick head coach Shawn McGeorge said he sees a common thread in his players who come from the program.
"The kids I see coming from there are all really eager to learn and ready to put in the hard work," said McGeorge.
Mallard, who has been president for 13 years, works to maintain the tradition and values that Oehler and the founders started 40 years ago. Mallard's wife, Dianne, serves as treasurer and is also heavily involved in the success of the organization.
"As an organization, we are about preserving the history and maintaining the identity we have developed through the years," said Stew Mallard.
"We want to be about more than just sports and help out in the community when we can."
Celebrating 40 years
On Aug. 27, the Mallard Creek Optimist Club will celebrate its 40 years with a celebration at Mallard Creek Community Park.
The event will celebrate where the club has been and where it hopes to go in the future. There will be food, live music, bounce houses for the kids.
"We all tend to take certain things we have for granted," said Mallard. The anniversary will include some founding members. "It is pretty amazing what they have done and what they have created."
Oehler said the Optimist Club should uphold the values that he learned playing sports in the 1940s and 50s. It was a different time then, but the organization tries to hang on to the same core values.
"I can still tell you each and every coach I ever had growing up playing ball. That is what we wanted. Our coaches out here are teaching them the right way and have taught the kids values and morals. It is about more than the game," said Oehler.
"I have kids and people who I don't know who they are come up to me all the time. They want to thank me for me time and for making this such a special organization. I may have helped start it, but these coaches and great leaders have kept it going. That is what I am most proud of."