“Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with another.” –Thomas Merton
When the Character Connection was asked to present at the United Nations’ 55th Commission for Social Development, I was excited and humbled. Our organization has had so many fortunes bestowed upon it in its short existence, but this was by far the most exciting and the most daunting. We were literally representing the United States in a council working to eradicate worldwide poverty through giving adolescents the tools to overcome the challenges of living in that poverty. No pressure!
Alongside two Character Connection students, I was asked to introduce our organization to the council. I thought I could speak off the cuff like I normally do. The morning of the presentation, I was kicking myself for thinking that was a good plan.
My mind kept telling me, “Justin you’re addressing the UN, probably would have been a good idea to at least sketch out some thoughts!” But my heart said differently: “You’ve got this! This is engrained in you. Follow your own advice and speak what’s true.” Which is exactly what we tell our students. This was a perfect opportunity for me to “practice what we preach.”
So, in the middle of a bustling room filled with dignitaries, educators, and students from various countries, I meditated… and the message just clicked. I would speak about our anchoring character qualities: mindfulness and compassion.
My words were brief but from the heart: Our only hope in eradicating poverty or any of the global maladies we face has a two prong solution: people must honor themselves and care for one another. For centuries meditation has been the gateway for a deeper recognition of self which leads to a recognition of that self in others. For us character education is so much more than virtue or ethics, it’s recognizing that we are all born from goodness and once we live from that goodness we can honor it in others. Imagine if we all held each other in that space? Mindfulness is the gateway and compassion is the goal.
To truly demonstrate the impact of our organization, though, it was essential for the council to hear from students who had experienced our programming first hand. These were the young men and women walking our walk and talking our talk. We were very lucky that Luis Adames, an 8th grader from the Bronx, and Jalene Rivera, a high school freshman from Bridgeport, CT, spoke about their own experiences.
Their contributions, as well as the respect they received from their distinguished audience, were inspiring. The entire room hung on their every word. Luis and Jalene spoke about the impact the Character Connection has had on them and, in turn, the impact they were having on others.
Jalene understood the power of compassion not only for herself but for others. In her speech to the UN Commission she said:
“The Character Connection program had a significant impact on my life. Before going through this program I doubted myself and kept to myself. Now, I have the courage to take healthy risks and be more of a leader not only in school but in my home as well. I have the confidence to speak up for myself and voice my opinions and ideas. I have also learned to encourage others to do the same. My ideas have already helped students at Waltersville through a program called, Together We Can. This program allows middle school students to mentor younger students and help them resolve conflicts in a positive manner. The Character Connection made me realize that I have a lot of potential to do some pretty amazing things in my life and so do each of you!”
After the students spoke, we heard from an ambassador who spoke of an initiative that was creating “Hope Spots” in her country. A play on the idea of “Hot Spots” where people can hook up their devices to WIFI, “Hope Spots” would be places where people could get together and help one another.
I fell in love with this idea. It’s exactly what we are trying to do at the Character Connection: Creating school communities that become cultures of hope for students, educators, and parents.
Going forward, this virtual space will be our own “Hope Spot.” In a time when negativity seems to be constantly swirling around us, the Hope Spot will be a place to share some of the things I hear from our students, parents, and teachers who are honoring themselves and one another. They inspire me every day and it is my hope they will inspire you.