BY CINDY KRANZ
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Tracy Marie Thompson reverently leads a candlelight procession to say the rosary at the foot of a grotto outside St. Anthony Church in Taylor Mill.
She doesn't drink. She doesn't smoke. She's vowed to remain chaste until marriage. And it's cool to say the rosary.
This is the kind of character the 15-year-old has chosen to be. For her, character counts.
"It leads you on the right path to do good things that are not going to harm you or somebody else," the Taylor Mill girl said.
Tracy, a sophomore at Scott High School, is one of 40 teens who will receive YMCA Character Awards Thursday during a banquet at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, downtown.
More than 100 youths, ages 12-18, were nominated for the second annual awards. Nominations were received from schools, recreation centers, churches, YMCA branches, businesses and family members.
To be eligible for the award, teens must demonstrate four positive character traits: caring, honesty, respect and responsibility.
The YMCA of Greater Cincinnati, which sponsors the awards, began building a national reputation for its character development programs in 1996, when it became the first YMCA in the country to appoint a full-time director of character development.
Two years later, character is a hot topic, given President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky. People and pundits often argue character vs. the healthy economy in judging Mr. Clinton.
Character counts because it describes who you are, what you are and what you believe, said Barbara Lewis, author of the just released What Do You Stand For?: A Kid's Guide to Building Character (Free Spirit; $18.95).
"There will always be bad examples around us. Good character is not connected to position, to sex, to economics. You make a conscious choice to have good character," said Ms. Lewis, coordinator of the gifted and talented program in Park City School District, Park City, Utah.
"Kids with good character will be far more successful in the classroom, on the job and in life. People will respect them more. They will get chosen for more things. People will trust them." She praised the YMCA of Greater Cincinnati for rewarding kids with character.
"You need a pat on the back from someone besides a parent or a teacher," Ms. Lewis said. "It reinforces the character trait when it's brought into the public and recognized. It becomes part of their identity. That also puts them in a position to inspire other kids to develop good character traits, too."
When Tracy said the rosary during her church youth group's rosary rally Oct. 4, she prayed for her three aunts who are pregnant. As part of her youth group, she's attended pro-life rallies.
"I don't think killing people serves any purpose," she said of her pro-life stance. "If you have a baby, you should take responsibility and take care of it. I know a lot of people put it up for adoption, and I don't like that idea."
For almost two years, she volunteered Sunday nights to help "pattern" a physically challenged Taylor Mill child. Patterning involves moving a child's limbs to simulate activities like crawling. Her work ended when the child improved.
She's also volunteered at Carmel Manor, a Fort Thomas nursing home, where she visited with residents and played cribbage with a resident who receives few visitors.
At school, Tracy is a member of her school's Color Guard, practicing three nights a week, with a game on Fridays and competition on Saturdays. She has helped organize See You at the Pole, an annual prayer service conducted under school flag poles across the country. A member of Fellowship of Christian Students, she meets for weekly prayer gatherings before school.
She's been a member of We Care Club, which works with physically challenged peers in her school. As part of Magic Circle, she encouraged Taylor Mill Elementary School students weekly to say "no' to smoking, drinking, drugs and premarital sex.
Tracy attended the American Red Cross Leadership Development Conference at the College of Mount St. Joseph this summer and will apply to become a counselor at next summer's conference. The volunteer job requires six months of training to teach 13- to 18-year-olds about peer pressure, self-esteem, team building, cultural diversity and conflict resolution.
Jane Tieman, a youth ministry team member at St. Anthony Church, said Tracy always offers good insights in group discussions and pitches in, whether it's helping with flood relief or baking Christmas cookies for diabetics who get Meals on Wheels.
"It makes people more hopeful these kids are out there," she said.
Tracy's positive traits were most apparent, however, while her grandfather progressed through Alzheimer's disease, said her mother, Tina Marie Thompson, who nominated Tracy for the award. Her grandfather, Ed Thompson, 75, of Taylor Mill, died in May 1997.
Tracy learned how to help with cooking, cleaning, care giving and entertaining her grandfather, so her parents and grandmother could periodically attend to other matters.
"Although this was difficult on Tracy, she always tried to handle herself in a positive and caring way," Mrs. Thompson said. "She learned life's lessons about the power of a positive attitude, prayer, responsibility, teamwork, respecting life and treating people in a caring way with dignity and respect."
Tracy agreed that her grandfather's illness and death was a tough time in her life.
"It was like losing one of my best friends," she said. "It was the hardest thing to do. He was like a hero. I could ask him just about anything and he'd help me. I looked up to him all my life. I think I grew up a little faster than I wanted to, mostly being that young when he was dying."
She's learned lessons from volunteering, as well.
"I wasn't always as positive or trying to be as positive. I was "Gimme, gimme, gimme.' I'm not like that as much anymore. I'm not so self-centered. I try not to be."
Kids used to be needed
Not many would argue that it's harder being a kid than it was 25 years ago. Today, there's more pressure to drink, smoke and have premarital sex. AIDS is in the picture. Violence has spilled over into the schools. Kids are expected to handle their parents' divorces and still perform well in the classroom.
More than ever, adults have an important role to play in building kids' character, said Louise Spiegel, honorary co-chairwoman of the 1998 YMCA Character Awards with her husband, U.S. District Judge Arthur Spiegel.
"All of us tend to want to be responsible people. I think kids are having a hard time in today's society to see where they fit. I lay that problem pretty much at our doorstep as adults," she said.
"I think we have forgotten what value kids really are, because we haven't defined their function anymore. They used to be needed on the farm and in the factory, historically, as cheap labor.
"Now, we don't know where to put them. Character must start with us and our belief that (kids) have value."