The Hope Spot 2: Our 2017 Award Ceremonies


WV Awards Pic 2Our cards lined up at the Waltersville Ceremony. Photo by Jessra Photos.

Last week, TCCI wrapped up its programmatic year in its Bronx and Bridgeport partner schools by hosting award ceremonies to recognize and honor over 250 students for their excellent work. Honorable mentions and first place awards were also given to those students who demonstrated outstanding growth in character and mindfulness. These were truly wonderful and inspiring celebrations.

Below are the comments I made at each ceremony and I would like to share them with you along with some great pictures of those two awesome events. Enjoy!

WV Awards Pic 3UN Speaker, Jalene Rivera and her mom join over 150 other attendees at Waltersville School in Bridgeport, CT. Photo by Jessra Photos 

We started the year with Dr. Martin Luther King’s Quote: “Intelligence plus character, that is the true goal of education.” Dr. King’s words are truer today than when he said them over 50 years go. But they are not always followed in our nation’s classrooms. When you come to school, you’re given the intelligence part of the equation. You come to learn ELA, social studies, science, and math, and then you’re tested. You’re tested repeatedly and the focus on those tests might make you feel like you’re nothing but a number or a rating on a piece of paper. Don’t get me wrong, learning all of this is important. Grades are important. But there are deeper questions often ignored: Who is the person behind the name? How is it that this person in this 7th or 8th-grade body can find the time and the space to be who they truly are? And how can they show the world that person and finally, how can they make a difference by helping others?

BX Awards Pic 2Our Bronx 8th graders waiting for the awards ceremony to begin. Photo by Tracy Bacigalupo.

That’s where TCCI tried to help you out a bit. And here was our recipe: We honored who we were no matter what, we worked to be our best and we shared our wisdom. With TCCI anyone can be the teacher because we are still learning. Every one of you in some way has taught me something this year. That’s why I do what I do. I am the teacher who gets to learn what it means to be his best from his students. Because guess what, even I haven’t figured it out.

To put it simply, you guys were THE BEST and going from October giving weird looks to this dude with his iPhone meditation timer to just knowing exactly what it meant to do your Mindfulness Check-Ins made me one of the happiest guys around. I knew in some small way it changed you and made you a little bit happier or better. The same way it did for me.

WV Awards 1It was a make-your-own-tacos award ceremony for Walterville. Photo by Jessra Photos. 

BX Awards Pic 3Dalton Grant, 8th Grade teacher at St. Simon Stock School, speaks about our programs in her classroom. Photo by Tracy Bacigalupo. 

WV Awards Pic 4Carrie Ramanauskas, Waltersville English/Language Arts teacher, speaks about the importance of parent involvement.

If you look at our nine character words, you’ll see that two of the most important words bookend our list: Mindfulness and Compassion. Mindfulness to help you recognize all the great stuff that is going on right now in life. Not what’s already happened or what’s going to happen. RIGHT NOW! It helps you to be calm, to be focused and just enjoy what is. The goal of that practice is to make you a person of compassion. A person that can turn around with this awesome knowledge of now-ness and care for yourself, for others and for the world. Imagine if everyone lived from this place? Imagine how different our world would be?

Well, it can start with you. I would like to share something that was shared with me. It’s a powerful example of just how transformative compassion can be and I do think it’s the whole point of our time together.

In certain regions of South Africa, when someone does something wrong, he is taken to the center of the village and surrounded by his tribe for two days while they speak of all the good he has done. They believe each person is good, yet sometimes we make mistakes, which is really a cry for help. They unite in this ritual to encourage the person to reconnect with his true nature. The belief is that unity and affirmation have more power to change behavior than shame and punishment. This is known as Ubuntu-humanity toward others.

BX Award Pic 1Bronx student, Ciara Dominguez, reads from her essay:  “The greatest challenge in life is discovering who you are. The second greatest is being happy with what you find.” Photo by Tracy Bacigalupo. 

WV Awards 6Emmanuel Vega has a classmate read his essay to the group at Waltersville: “I use and need perseverance when I am thinking about some of the hard things that I have been going through in my life.”

WV Awards 7Johncarlos Gonzalez wrote and recorded an awesome song he courageously presented at the ceremony: “I am a person of survival.” Photo by Jessra Photos.

WV Awards 10Cristal Ortiz-Santana wrote about living with cerebral palsy: “I want people with disabilities or obstacles in their way to have enough courage to push forward.” Photo by Jessra Photos. 

Humanity toward yourself and others. What else is there? And if you get off track like we all do, take the words with you and keep them in your mind and heart. If you’re feeling anxious and unfocused remember to breathe, remember to be mindful. If you’re facing a challenge remember courage. If you’re bored or stuck, remember curiosity. If you’re not sure what’s right, remember integrity. If you’re feeling like taking the easy way out, remember best effort. If you just want to give up, remember perseverance. If you’re feeling like something is unfair or you’re not getting your way, remember gratitude. If you’re feeling like you don’t have enough, remember generosity, and if you’re feeling like you’re the only person out there in the whole wide world and no one cares, remember compassion. Someone always cares.

You have the tools go out there, be good to yourself and be good to others.

WV Awards 9Many thanks to everyone who made this an amazing school year for TCCI! Photo by Jessra Photos. 




The Hope Spot#1: A Global Inspiration


Jalene Rivera looking over her notes before addressing the UN’s 55th Commission for Social Development.  Photo by Jessraphotos


“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.


Photo by Jessraphotos. 


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.


Photo by Jessraphotos

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.

Our Bridgeport team after the presentation. Photo by Jessraphotos
And our Bronx team!  Photo by Jessraphotos

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.



Photo by Jessraphotos. 



Character Connection at the United Nations

DSC_9350.jpgThe Character Connection Initiative and two of its students recently presented at the United Nations’ 55th Commission for Social Development: Promoting Mental Health and Well-Being for Youth.

Founder Justin Rivers and students Jalene Rivera (Waltersville School, Bridgeport, CT) and Luis Adames (St. Thomas Aquinas, Bronx, NY) spoke about the impact of Character Connection’s program, including the use of mindfulness in its curriculum.

Said Adames, Since beginning TCCI, I have learned so much about myself.  I am more open and honest about my feelings.  This magnificent program has not only helped me learn about myself but I have also learned about my friends.  It has helped me to understand the type of people I need to surround myself with in order to be successful.  This program needs to grow so other students can learn to understand themselves, be their best, and care and connect with others.”

(Photos Courtesy of Jessra Photos)


Our Origin Story


“Those who understand see themselves in all, and all in themselves.” –Bhagavad Gita 

I am often asked why I started the Character Connection. That story is now over a decade long but this is the core of it:

I was lucky enough to begin my training at a small non-profit with a big heart called Friends of Nick. Under the mentorship of its founder I was one of the first teachers to pilot the idea of incorporating intentional character language in my middle school classroom.

The results were outstanding.

Not only did I see my students flourish but I became a better teacher by having the tools to reach students who were told over and over again they were unreachable. The process was so simple:

Honor your experience, be your best, share your wisdom.

That formula applied to students, teachers, principals, and parents. Character was the teacher and we were all learning from each other. The changes were so profound that it became my mission to share these methods with any educator who would listen.

Embracing and implementing character education is actually the result of my character education story. The story itself begins on the day before September 11 with a former student of mine: Jasmine.

September 10, 2001 was the third day of my teaching career. I taught fifth grade at a small school on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. My first task that morning was to inform one of my students that she would be left back in the fifth grade. Her name was Jasmine and she was recovering from extensive hip surgery the year before. Her only comfort was coming back to school to be with her friends.

I was petrified. I was already in over my head with a challenging class of 28 students, many with unmet special needs. Now I was overwhelmed by the task of disappointing this little girl.  In that moment, I didn’t want to be a teacher anymore.

After I explained the situation to Jasmine, she cried and said repeatedly that she was scared. Scared of what the students would think of an older girl in their class. Scared that her friends in sixth grade would forget about her. Witnessing her complete honesty, I violated every rule taught to a new teacher:

I smiled and said, “It’s ok, I’m new here and I’m really scared too.”

Jasmine and I then walked into the classroom and made the best of a very challenging year.

Jasmine was my first teaching mentor. Her wisdom to be exactly who she was in that shared moment inspired me every time I walked into my classroom.

I became involved in character education because of her. I needed the tools to reach Jasmine in a way traditional teaching methods couldn’t. This is where the formula comes in: Honor your experience, be your best, share your wisdom. When students like Jasmine know that they are safe to express who they are and that it’s ok to be who they are, they are empowered to make positive choices.

Years later, Jasmine and I met up. She retold that story from her perspective. She said it was compassion that made her walk into my classroom that day when all she wanted to do was run out the door and go home. Throughout high school, Jasmine’s journey was challenging but the perseverance and courage that led her to walk after her hip surgery and helped her to face a classroom of strangers after she was held back followed her through to adulthood. Jasmine has defied odds and chosen a career helping others at a nonprofit organization on the Lower East Side. Her perseverance and courage have made her successful—she continues to inspire me.




dsc_5356-copyThe past year has been an exciting one! The Character Connection Initiative has launched and introduced its programs in select pilot classrooms. We are poised for rapid, scalable growth and anticipate a broader rollout in fall 2016. We are thrilled to partner with Fordham University’s Applied Psychology department to measure the efficacy of our programs.

The need for character education in schools is tremendous, and the response to our programs from students and educators is overwhelmingly positive.

My nearly two decades of experience developing and teaching character education, combined with insights from other thought leaders in the field has made our programs doubly impactful. Character Connection distinguishes itself among character programs by

Working directly with our partner schools;

Grounding students in a sense of mindfulness, providing a framework for lasting change; and

Including parents as active participants in our programs.

I look forward to updating you regularly through our website and social media. I also encourage you to reach out to me, our executive director, or any of our board members to learn more about our programs, our organization and how you can support us in our mission.

Please join us in providing students the tools to overcome obstacles and realize their potential in school and beyond or, as we say at the Character Connection, to ”Be your best, from the inside, out.”

Justin Rivers
Founding Program Director