For over 20 years, Character Counts Mid Shore has been reaching over 13,500 children in Caroline, Dorchester, and Talbot counties. With the retirement of Susan Luby, the organization’s executive director, and the appointment of Lauren Weber as the new executive director, Character Counts Mid Shore is blazing new ground as it is empowering young people to chart their own course to success, even if in their own lives they don’t have access to role models capable of showing them the way.
“The community has loved the Character Counts program and I am grateful for the wonderful legacy I am coming into. The Board has challenged me to evolve the program to meet the future needs of young people. This has involved self-reflection as an organization and developing a set of core values that put the ‘why’ in front of what we do. It was a programmatic shift,” comments Lauren.
After talking with parents, students, educators, superintendents, and the business community, Lauren confirmed that character education is not in silos but rather connected to how we all live our lives and that two important values need to be in place for character education to succeed. The first is to ensure that all young people have equitable access to be successful and the second is that citizens who engage civically are ready for the workforce. These values work toward the organization’s mission which is to invest in youth through character education to brighten students’ futures, engage citizens of all ages, and sustain desirable communities.
Lauren explains that character can be harnessed by anyone to better their lives. The goal of Character Counts Mid Shore is to teach character so that it is effective, equipping young people with a diverse practicable set of noncognitive strengths upon which they can draw in the pursuit of a productive life. Over 160 coaches use culturally sensitive and trauma-informed lessons to make the lessons impactful.
She comments, “While the six pillars of character used to be the focus of the teaching, today, the program focuses on providing young people with a roadmap for embodying the principles.”
This new framework aligns with the schools’ priorities which include social-emotional learning, growth mindset, civic responsibility, workforce readiness, and executive function.
When COVID-19 arrived this spring, Lauren and her board were forced to innovate with how to deliver their content digitally. Character Coaches were pulled out of the schools 10 days ahead of closing the schools for safety reasons. The organization began videotaping character lessons called “Character Lessons at Home” that were shared online through Facebook, the organization’s website, as well as emailed to students and teachers.
“COVID demanded a pivot and we were ready. We utilized community leaders to give messages of hope in our ‘Hopeful Together’ video series and started an online Community Kindness Club. We especially listened to families during this time and created supplementary materials that could help the children and their parents cope with that was happening. Partnering with Dr. Samantha Scott of the Child and Family Center, we created a ‘Coping with COVID,’ series offering families support and tangible strategies for dealing with the difficult times we were in,” Lauren adds.
Lauren points out that because caregivers are the most influential people in children’s lives, that character development starts at home. COVID stressors caused many parents not to be their best selves at home. Samantha helped parents with strategies with how to recover from these moments.
Samantha comments, “We had generated a whole new audience, helping families as well as the children to develop personally. These lessons could then be used by other organizations working with families and youth.”
The response to the videos was overwhelming. Lauren reflects, “People were encouraged to be characterful in a time when things were difficult. The lessons could be taught through something as simple as hoarding toilet paper or as complex as the social justice problems which were occurring at the same time. This gave us the data to see there was an appetite from families as well as their children.”
Lauren has realized with the pandemic that school isn’t going to look like school anymore and that volunteers would no longer be coming into classrooms to teach character lessons. This posed the question about how to measure the personal transformation students would experience through the Character Counts program. Lauren acknowledges that COVID has become the filter of how they will measure it.
“Getting to a place of resilience when you are young is difficult. Investing in child resilience has become the foundation for our new program. Finding a life of purpose, meaning and engagement helps people live productive lives. This new program was designed for this moment we are living in,” adds Lauren.
Lauren’s previous work experience in education in Utah, including working in resource development for Title One schools, has given her a strong commitment to equity in the lessons the organization provides and making that information available to others.
The organization made a pivotal shift when it set the goal to create Characterful, Engaged, and Ready Citizens or CER Citizens. According to Lauren, being “characterful” means consistently acting with integrity employing character strengths to better themselves and others. Being “engaged” means being committed to the call of civic responsibility. Being “ready” means being well prepared for success and productivity (workforce readiness). Students in the older grades even receive soft skills for jobs, including customer service, problem-solving, interpersonal skills, flexibility, and time management.
“We found out some of these skills were lacking, presenting a challenge to area employers,” Lauren admits.
In looking to the future, Lauren comments, “Remaining agile and assessing needs as they emerge is important. That’s a tall order for any nonprofit. We are going to innovate during these challenging times and see what the effect is. This is the beginning of a year’s long process to get there. I believe all of this is the right thing at the right time.”
For further information about Character Counts Mid Shore, visit charactercountsmidshore.com or call Lauren Weber at 410-819-0386.