From left, Samuel Worsley, Emma Lester and Jaelynn Lash participated in the 2016 Youth with Character Academy sponsored by the Botetourt County Character Counts! Council.

The most recent Botetourt County Virginia Cooperative Extension Situational Analysis identified the need for leadership skills and character education in county youth as the No. 1 priority of citizens in Botetourt.

This indicates the overwhelming importance of developing competent leaders with strong moral values and an understanding of what it takes to be a positively contributing citizen, Botetourt 4-H Extension Agent Katherine Carter said. To address this need and focus on building strong youth leaders, the Botetourt County Character Counts! Council organized the first Youth With Character Academy in June of 2015.

This year’s event, the Third Annual Youth with Character Academy, will be July 24-27 at Fincastle Baptist Church with more than 20 rising sixth graders invited to attend as representatives of the seven county elementary schools.

Students will participate in hands-on activities that focus on the six pillars of character: Responsibility, Respect, Caring, Trustworthiness, Fairness, and Citizenship; and prepare them to demonstrate and share those characteristics with fellow students at Central Academy and Read Mountain Middle Schools in the coming school year.

Guest speakers, experiential learning and development of a personal character-plan help youth identify ways they can strengthen their personal character traits and use their leadership to influence others.

Jaelynn Lash, Emma Lester and Samuel Worsley are three of last year’s student participants and all rising sixth graders at Central Academy Middle School. Each of them shared that their favorite part of the three-day academy was meeting new people, making new friends, and participating in fun activities that helped them learn about the six pillars of Character Counts!.

All three agreed they were nervous not knowing who the other participants would be, but soon made friends and enjoyed learning with other fifth graders from across Botetourt. Many of those friendships have lasted and students have stayed in touch despite attending different schools.

Emma indicated that her experience at the Youth with Character Academy gave her confidence and helped her build new friendships with students at CAMS who came from different elementary schools. Emma’s favorite pillar was “Responsibility” and she noted that she learned the older she gets the more responsible she must become.

Sam appreciated the activities associated with the “Fairness” pillar and left the Academy understanding the importance of making sure no one feels mistreated.

Jaelynn had strong memories of the “Trustworthiness” pillar and shared how hard it was to put your total trust in someone that you had only known for one day. Jaelynn added that she realized if she were trustworthy, then others would treat her the same.

Field trips to the Botetourt County Courthouse and the Brian Center allowed participants to demonstrate their good character and put the pillar qualities into action.

Jaelynn liked spending time with the residents at the Brian Center and noticed that this made the residents happy. Emma enjoyed knowing that her actions had made a positive difference. Sam enjoyed the mock trial at the courthouse and recognized the importance of fairness and citizenship during this process.

When asked if they would recommend the Youth with Character Academy to other students, all three echoed a resounding “Yes,” and shared that the lessons learned during the Academy made them a better person and taught them about their individual character.

The Youth with Character Academy is organized and sponsored by the Botetourt County Character Counts! Council and supported through the donations of individuals and businesses throughout the county.

Those interested in helping to make this annual event possible can contact Angela Crawford at acrawford@BOTETOURTVA.GOV or call the Botetourt County Extension Office at 473-8260.