My older daughter came home from school the other day in an orange frame of mind.
Students at her school were planning to wear orange clothing the next day to raise awareness of one of the Character Counts pillars: fairness. The students were reminded that being fair means playing by the rules, sharing, being open minded, not taking advantage of others and not blaming others.
This seemed like an excellent and timely lesson. For the last six weeks or so, this pillar of character has been playing out for her on a daily basis. There have been some instances of bullying and unfair treatment in her grade level, and the administration has reacted swiftly and appropriately. It is a wonderful gift that in our community, the staff in our schools take character development seriously and have a low tolerance for bad behavior. In some cases, their leadership is exemplary.
That's why recently, many school administrators, volunteers and students were recognized in April by the City of Highland Park at its annual Robert Barnard Character Counts Pillar Award Ceremony. A citywide committee accepts nominations for potential award recipients, and selects the most exemplary and impacting contributors from throughout Highland Park for these annual awards. Following the ceremony, Highland Park's Youth Services Manager, Don Miner, told me about the awards ceremony and winners.
At some point in the last few years, I decided I wanted to start giving back to Highland Park. I sought about doing so in some of the "usual" ways--volunteering and applying to serve on committees. I expected to find many opportunities to help with city government or other local projects, on a naïve assumption that my skills, background and passion were unique amongst neighbors. During my time writing about Highland Park, I have learned the opposite: There are hundreds of people here in town who live and breathe community service, selfless action and strong character. The 2011 Character Counts awards winners clearly demonstrate that.
There were more than 40 nominations recognized at the 2011 event. Some were people in obvious leadership roles, such as Officer Debbie Fishman, who works as a school liaison for the Highland Park Police Department, and her counterpart Detective Dave Johnson in Highwood. What was interesting about the recognition of these two police officers was that all eight principals of the District 112 elementary schools unanimously nominated them, based on their demonstrated impeccable character and caring for our children and families.
Others were students who probably don't even realize yet that they stand out from the crowd, such as Kylie Gimbel, a third grader at Indian Trail School. Her nomination notes that she "volunteers for everything" and "stick[s] up for those that are too timid to speak up for themselves."
I was particularly touched by a nomination coming from Elm Place Middle School. Math and science teacher Constance Cunningham was recognized for organizing a Breakfast Club and lunchtime funding for needy students who were coming to school hungry. She was nominated by other Elm Place teachers, not administrators, who were singling out her selfless actions for recognition.
Equally impressive was a nomination for Eric Falberg, a Highwood alderman and neighbor. I had only known Falberg for his work at getting people to carve pumpkins or come out for the Highwood Farmers Market. It turns out that he is also on the board of the Julia Foundation and a volunteer at Oak Terrace School and Family Network. That Highwood's Falberg was nominated for a Highland Park character award demonstrates the far-reaching impact of his "outstanding and compassionate" personality.
Developing character in our students, educators, leaders and community is an ongoing and constant effort. As I have learned about the 2011 Character Counts award recipients, the people we have hired and entrusted with our children, and the children themselves, have already stepped up to the challenges. I did not want their recognized accomplishments to disappear in the pre-election noise. Thanks to city staffer Don Miner -- exhibiting his own strength of character -- more of their stories are being told.