ORANGEBURG, S.C. — Over 1400 students from all over Orangeburg County gathered at Claflin University’s gym for the 19th Annual Fifth Grade Outstanding Character Recognition Program

For nearly two decades, the Community of Character organization has worked to identify students with exemplary character. Fifth-graders were nominated by faculty and administration, and wrote an essay explaining what character trait they feel is most important. 

Hayward Jean, principal of Mellichamp Elementary School gave the keynote speech and encouraged students to dream big.

"It’s important for them to know it is not what it looks like, even if it’s good, it’s not what it looks like. And if it’s terrible, man, it’s not what it looks like. It’s going to be greater," Jean says. "Too many people are giving up on their lives because somebody has defined it for them. Come on now, nobody can define your life besides the one who created you. So, I want them to be encouraged about who they are and let them know that they are not an accident and anything that is happening in their life is a part of a bigger plan to make life better for someone else."

Melvin Smoke, a former district superintendent started the program over 20 years ago with the intention of helping students, and he says he's prouder than ever to see it grow. 

"We were trying to develop a whole child. We wanted them to be well rounded individuals," says Smoke. "The program has grown tremendously. And these days, we need more opportunities to teach our children good character in schools."