When Behavior Bear says something, children tend to listen. The bear is one of nine characters created by Joni Downey of Johnsburg to teach children values. He began as a puppet more than six years ago in a classroom Downey once taught.
He and his fellow characters make up Characters of Character, a nonprofit organization based in McHenry, and are called upon throughout the country to help teach elementary school-age children.
It’s an organization that is truly family run with Joni’s husband, Joe, and their children, 30-year-old Joey, 27-year-old Josh and 24-year-old Jen, all doing their part.
They’ve created books, visited events, birthday parties and classrooms, given community presentations and even dressed up as the characters themselves. All nine characters now have their own costumes.
The program is used by classrooms and social workers. Children can write to the characters at Characters of Character, P.O. Box 391, McHenry, IL 60050. The characters will respond. The program’s website offers free worksheets, activities, videos and contests.
“Everything we do is voluntary,” Downey said. “We’re out to get a message to the kids. It’s just so empowering, and it tugs at your heartstrings when you see what these characters offer to these kids.
“To see the impact these simple characters have on these kids. ... It’s a glorious feeling.”
Downey was a teacher in an at-risk classroom when she first thought of creating characters to help get lessons across about healthy habits.
Then puppets, the characters helped the students open up and discuss values.
“They could understand at a younger age what it meant to have good behavior,” she said.
Joining Behavior Bear are Do’er Duck, Friendship Frog, Healthy Hippo, Manners Monkey, Respectful Rabbit, Responsible Rabbit, Self-Esteem Elephant and Warm-Hearted Walrus.
They’re designed to enhance a child’s ability to read, write, make good decisions, develop fine motor skills and build and improve social and emotional skills.
As important and varied as the values they teach, their messages are actually quite simple, Downey said.
Through lessons and a book series the family has created, they teach children to persevere, use manners, be proud, live healthy, be a friend and simply behave.
“You can see today in society there’s a great need. ... With a busy society, it’s not easy for a parent to juggle everything,” Downey said.
A certificate from Manners Monkey given to a child behaving at the lunch table can make his day, she said.
Downey’s latest book, “Tune Into Good Character,” introduces the characters through a musical note. Her son, Josh, illustrated the book. And her daughter, Jennifer, has created an activity book, along with other items.
“We just love what we’re doing because we know it makes a difference,” Downey said.