'Characters' bring values, manners to life for Johnsburg woman
Given the current social and political climate, manners, compassion and patience seem to be in decline, and the need for understanding and appreciating other people has never been more important.
Enter Johnsburg resident Joni Downey, 59, who believes long-lasting changes are possible by making positive connections with others, especially children.
Downey always wanted to teach, but she never got a degree. When the Buffalo Grove High School graduate worked in elementary schools assisting learning and behaviorally disabled students, she created "Characters of Character." She saw the students react positively to puppets as she discussed characters' specific traits, and noted how these discussions helped change the students' behaviors.
Due to her creative program, the school nominated her for a national Promising Practice Award -- and she won.
"From there, I felt I was on to something," Downey said.
Since then, she received a grant that allowed her to bring the characters she created to life through costumes, art, 30 story books and a variety of activities.
With help from her family, Downey works with park districts, libraries, schools and local businesses to bring the nonprofit program to children.
Each of the nine costumed characters represents an important value, such as Friendship Frog, Manners Monkey, Behavior Bear and Respectful Rabbit. Her son, Joe, 37, helped transform Downey's sketches into products, and another son, Josh, 34, of Genoa City, Wisconsin, created illustrations for her values-related educational tools. Daughter, Jennifer Downey, 30, helped create the curricula books, including "Let's Behave," "Let's Be Friends" and "Let's Have Manners."
"Joni introduces (children to) qualities necessary to be successful in life and to be good human beings," said McHenry resident Katie Marshall, 39, who has attended three of Downey's programs with her children and plans to attend more. "Through the lens of animals, she demonstrates characteristics necessary for human decency. The characters become like friends. Her programs are educational, while being fun and enriching."
Jane Khaytin, 47, a Port Barrington resident and youth/school services librarian at Vernon Area Public Library, recently invited Downey to the Lincolnshire library to present her programs, and said the lessons "leave a lasting impact."
"This character development program assists in teaching children good behavior, manners, respect, kindness, healthy habits, responsibility, perseverance and self-esteem -- all important life skills," Khaytin said.
The children, she explained, learn about each trait through story time and painting. Programs include activity books, puppets, stickers, coloring pages, and above all, fun.
"I really enjoy the message Joni is trying to send to children," said Kendra Ring, Grayslake Park District's recreation supervisor. "(Kids) learn all about self-esteem and friendship and being kind -- all through painting characters that go along with a theme." Grayslake has held several classes and will offer more this summer. "Kids really take to her and enjoy being in her classes."
Downey said she believes in working to change the world one child at a time.
"Society, family life and the world around us have changed, but I am firm believer in the importance of teaching children values and social skills," she said. "This must begin at home so we can prepare these children to walk into the world, confident about who they are and able to help and empower others."