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Nearly 1,300 fifth-graders were recently offered some nuggets, but not of the chicken variety. These nuggets were given to inspire them to improve their character to become better people.

The fifth-graders converged at Claflin University’s Jonas T. Kennedy Health and Physical Education Center for the Orangeburg County Community of Character Initiative’s 12th annual Outstanding Character Recognition Program on Jan. 24.

A student from each of the county’s 17 elementary schools was honored for their winning essay on a character trait. The fifth-graders also received an inspiring message on character development from Al Duncan, president and chief executive officer of Decatur, Ga.-based Al Duncan Enterprises LLC. The mission of ADE is to help young people build a competitive advantage by providing evidence-based soft skills training to youth service organizations and institutions.

Duncan, an award-winning youth advocate, publisher and motivational speaker, said he offered the audience his own “Duncan Nuggets” on a few topics, including the power of good decision-making.

“The first thing I wanted to get across was that our circumstances don’t determine our outcomes; our choices do. It’s not enough just to make good choices, but to recognize the power of making good choices. If you want something to change, it really starts with you making a good choice,” Duncan said.

“You’re not sure what you’re capable of as a child. You’re not sure if greatness is for you or not, but greatness has no age,” he said.

Duncan refused to let a troubled early life define who he came to be and went on to enjoy careers as a professional saxophone player and chef. By the age of 24, he assumed the responsibility of raising his youngest brother.

“Failure is only permanent if you quit. Character and character development among students begins with young people with a high level of grit, passion and perseverance toward a long-term goal. If you measure these students and watch their skill sets, they’re more successful,” he said. “They’re smart people, and I think that’s a big help in not making the same mistakes over and over.”

Duncan uses the example of a video game to demonstrate his third nugget of advice on self empowerment.

“Children never give up in playing video games. Each time they’re playing them, they’re not worried about the fact that they didn’t pass a level. They’re more concerned that they didn’t recognize a little trick or learn something to help them do it better,” he said. “They keep doing it over and over to develop skills to pass that level, and that’s called deliberate practice.”

He said grit and curiosity are among the performance-type characters developed as children work to move to the next game level.

“That’s what I’m trying to show them. The obstacle might come, but you want to fail forward. I don’t take any excuses. I came from a single-parent household. My dad, who was a preacher, was addicted to crack cocaine. It was a great lesson for me,” Duncan said.

“My brother is doing well, and throughout my journey, the only thing that really changed was my attitude and choices.”

Orangeburg Preparatory School fifth-grader Peyton Inabinet, 10, said he appreciated Duncan’s speech.

“It was great. I thought it was very powerful. He was talking about how success is a personal thing. You might grow up poor and have a hard early life, but you can still be successful. Don’t let those things weigh you down. He told us to keep going and always follow your dream,” Inabinet said.

He said his essay was about the importance of showing respect.

“The world would be a lot better place if everybody had respect. It means showing that you care for and appreciate others. It’s like somebody walking down the hall who may drop their paper. You help them pick it up. Little stuff like that means a lot to people,” Inabinet said.

Brookdale Elementary School fifth-grader Clifton Yates said he, too, enjoyed Duncan’s message.

“I think that it really touched some of my friends because some of my friends need to start taking responsibility for their actions. I like the part where he kept on asking us questions and handing out books,” said Yates, who wrote an essay on responsibility.

“I believe that I am responsible because I take care of my brother. I make sure my homework is completed, and I believe that I stay on task with many things. I like that the program gave me the opportunity to meet other outstanding fifth graders and community leaders,” he said.

Elloree Elementary fifth-grader Jayanna Goodwin also wrote about responsibility.

“I wrote about how I’m responsible in my home and in my community. I do my chores and help my grandma when my mama’s away. At school, I help other classmates do their class work if the teacher says I can,” said Goodwin, who also enjoyed Duncan’s words of wisdom.

“I like what he said about what we need to have in order to be a successful person in the future. He said it’s based on your choices, responsibility and courage. Your actions speak louder than words and the way you act shows how you will act in the future,” she said.

OCCOC Executive Director Kristina Thomas said she has been pleased with the growth of the recognition program, which serves to foster good character early on.

“We hope that what they’ve experienced in fifth grade will transition into middle school and follow them through the higher grades. The guidance counselors, principals and superintendents have all played a part in whatever we have needed for this program,” Thomas said.

Contact the writer: dgleaton@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5534.

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