Taylor Westerlind wants people to see the positives in our world.
Tashara Martin helps an elementary school develop a love for mathematics.
And Carmen Camacho gives everyone a boost -- even her teacher.
They don't know each other, but the Broward County students have something in common. They stand out in demonstrating the district's eight character education traits and are recognized among the 24 top honorees in the second annual Sun-Sentinel Kids of Character awards. In all, 366 students were honored this year during a celebration Thursday at the Museum of Discovery and Science in Fort Lauderdale.
Good character is evident in Broward schools. From the third-grader who donated her hair to help a cancer patient, to the children who visit the elderly at nursing homes, even to the vast majority who are cited for spending time helping their fellow students, children are serving as textbook examples of good character.
"It's not complicated, but it's something that's important to learn," says Oliver Sohn of Weston, a fifth-grader at Whispering Pines Center in Miramar. "It will be valuable to have -- whatever you're doing -- the rest of your life."
Among the prime examples of children who are already showing good character -- but by far not the only ones -- are: Westerlind, a fourth-grader at Challenger Elementary in Tamarac, selected as the top honoree for the Piper High feeder pattern, also known as the innovation zone; Martin, a senior from Coconut Creek High, representing that innovation zone; and Camacho, an eighth-grader at Sawgrass Springs Middle School in Coral Springs, representing the Marjory Stoneman Douglas feeder system.
Documenting good deeds
Westerlind, the oldest of three children, and her family were motivated by a depressing dose of TV news."We said, 'There's never anything good. All we do is focus on the negative,'" she relates.
So she created a box in the school's media center, where faculty and students can submit the name of a Challenger Elementary student who commits a good deed. The circumstances are then profiled in the Milky Way Monthly school newsletter.
So far, there have always been more good deeds to write about than there is space.
But the quality of Westerlind's character can't be conveyed in just one act.
"We call her our positive genetic defect," says her mom, Mary Westerlind, a teacher at Developmental Preschool & Kindergarten in Plantation. The family lives in the Inverrary portion of Lauderhill. "She's always been like that. At age 13 months, shed give herself a timeout if she did something wrong."
Westerlind's teacher is another big fan.
"Here's a little girl who has a work ethic that's pretty incredible for 10 years old," Bernadette Sloan says. "She's totally disciplined and completely responsible."
Martin, of North Lauderdale, helped lead the Big Cougar-Little Cougar program this year with Coconut Creek Elementary students to improve their math performance. She and her fellow students created a math game called "Mingo," which is essentially math bingo. About 20 fourth-graders and 20 fifth-graders are involved in the program, which is part of their regular math education.
"We wanted to make math fun for kids," says Martin, a cheerleader who also is ranked No. 1 in her class for grade-point average. "I love hearing them make up stories about hexagon man or 'triangle lady.'"
Her work in her own school is noteworthy, too, Coconut Creek Assistant Principal Washington Collado says.
"She's just one of those students that you see and say, 'Thank God I got into this profession,'" he says. "Not because shes an A student, but because she's so willing to help everyone."
Camacho, from Coral Springs, wrote a series of letters and notes to her teacher, Glenda Sweeting, and the teacher's mother, because Sweetings mother was dying of colon cancer. She died Feb. 3.
"Carmen very much decided that her mission in life was to make my life easier. Every day, she would send her a card with sayings," Sweeting says. "Even during Christmas break, she wanted to make sure there was a card every day."
One card read: "Life is like a roller coaster. You go up, you go down. And when its time to get off, its time to get off."
Camacho, whose parents are from the Dominican Republic, lived in the Bronx for 11 years before moving to South Florida and starting sixth grade.
Understanding how others feel is a special gift Camacho has, Sweeting said.
"I just feel their pain," Camacho says.
At the awards celebration, 24 students were recognized as top honorees, representing each innovation zone and the charter school category, and 24 more were awarded honorable mentions. Each of 186 schools also had top honorees recognized and 180 schools had honorable mentions. Superintendent of Schools Frank Till and Sun-Sentinel Publisher Bob Gremillion greeted the students and their families.
Getting involved has helped both Michael Bohorquez, a fifth-grader from Hollywood Park ElementaryBohorquez, who arrived in the United States from Colombia in February 1999, and his classmates. He was selected from the McArthur High feeder pattern.
"Hes very much into participating, and just loves to jump in there and take the lead," says Nicholas Matzirakis, his teacher at Hollywood Park. "Wherever you are, youll always find him doing the right thing.That includes helping other students who are making the difficult transition by learning English on the fly. Bohorquez had to learn the language quickly when he started school three years ago at Hollywood Park, but now he's quite fluent. He also does his part by serving on the school's safety patrol and being one of the students who puts the U.S. and Florida flags up each day.
After school, he sometimes walks his sister, Laura, across the school grounds, where they participate in after-care programs at the Hollywood Boys and Girls Club. That makes his mother, Claudia, happy.
"He has a beautiful heart," she says. "He helps all children, old people and his sister."
Suzanne Al-Said, a fourth-grader at Silver Lakes Elementary in Miramar, selected from the Flanagan High feeder pattern, has shown kindness and responsibility since coming to Silver Lakes from Silver Palms Elementary three years ago. But this year she has been a lesson in perseverance.
Her mother, Inaam Mohamed Al-Said, was killed Oct. 26 in a car accident at Sheridan Street and 185th Way in Pembroke Pines. Al-Said has helped her father take care of two younger siblings.
"I dont think I'd even be able to function, but here she is, turning in all of her work, and never making excuses," says her teacher, Inez Nielsen.
She walks her brother, Ahmad, to his first-grade class, then sits with him at night while he does "every piece" of his homework, Nielsen says.
"And if there's a child in our class that needs any kind of help, she's there," Nielsen says. "Not in a teacher's pet kind of way. She's just truly concerned."
Leigh-Ann Fairweather, a seventh-grader at Nova Middle School in Davie, became involved with "signing" for the hearing-impaired seven years ago with her church, the Lighthouse Seventh-Day Adventists in Fort Lauderdale.
She since has become involved with Speaking Hands, a Miami-based group that travels throughout Florida motivating audiences by signing. Her highlight came in 1999, when she and the rest of the group signed The Star-Spangled Banner at Super Bowl XXXIII in Miami.
Jeffry Womack, a senior at Fort Lauderdale High, stopped a students suicide attempt. The student was working her way toward the auditorium roof, and Womack climbed up to calm her. He eventually moved close enough to overtake her physically.
"It's not like I thought about it," he says. "I just acted."
But character isn't created by just one action. Womack is among the school's leaders in the Naval Junior ROTC program, serving as a drill team and rifle team commander, and operations officer.
"It's good for discipline and respect," he says.
Nick Sortal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-385-7906.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun