At a glance, the activity on the Paul R. Smith Middle School campus might have looked like a typical field day event, with hundreds of kids taking turns playing dodgeball in the gym, capture the flag on the field and scaling a rock wall on the basketball court.
No doubt there was some good athletic fun for kids such as Freddy Hamilton, 11, who was the first of his group to pull himself to the top of the wall and push the bright red button signaling success.
"I finally made it," he said after rappelling his way down. "It felt awesome to do that."
High-fives all around for meeting a personal best, but the activity was more about building character than stamina.
Freddy had help getting there, after all. A buddy helped him secure his harness and helmet before he started; a teacher gave him direction telling him to adjust his footing when he was about two-thirds of the way up, thinking out loud that he couldn't make it; and his classmates and Florida National Guard Staff Sgt. Jorge Garcia boosted his spirits, chanting "Go, Freddy, go!" as he closed in on the summit.
The rock wall climbing activity was just one facet of a Youth Values Leader Training program presented over three days to Paul R. Smith Middle students by members of the Florida National Guard Civil Operations Program.
The program, which was booked for the school by Cpl. Jeremy Colhouer, who served as resource officer last year, was the right fit for the Holiday school named for Sgt. Paul R. Smith, who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his service in Iraq, said principal Christopher Dunning.
"We're always trying to do things to recognize who this school is named for," Dunning said. "This instills the same characteristics and values that we're trying to teach here at school."
The leadership program has reached about 151,000 students throughout the state and blends some typical school yard games and athletics with lessons on drug awareness and the seven core values of the Army: loyalty, duty, respect, self sacrifice, honor, integrity and personal courage.
But those games come with some different Army rules. For instance, dodgeball isn't just about pelting others or getting out of the way of a flying ball. The primary mission in Army dodgeball is to protect your "medic," a student who can bring a player "back to life" with a simple touch to a felled teammate's shoulder.
"Our purpose is to change some of the social norms and give them an idea of what those core values are," Garcia said. "All the games are based on those values."
After playing, students gather in a circle to discuss just how they used some of those values, and how they might be applied in everyday life.
Tapping into your own personal courage might be needed to scale that wall, particularly for someone who is afraid of heights, Garcia said. "But it's also important when it comes to saying no to drugs or standing up to a school bully. Personal integrity might mean taking your place on the sideline even if no one saw you get hit by that ball, or passing on the opportunity to take a peek at the upcoming test left in plain sight on your teacher's desk when she steps out for a minute."
"This is such a great experience for all of us," said sixth-grade language arts teacher Lynn Albert. "I'll be taking this back to the classroom and we'll be writing about it. The message is so important: to know about things like honor, respect and integrity. It's a great time to get the whole sixth-grade together to put into practice these leadership skills."
To that end, Garcia and other Guard members spend some time ferreting out students who readily display those seven tenets without much thought.
Eighth-grade student Mikaela O'Donnell, who arrived ahead of her classmates for the program's initial assembly in the gymnasium, was rewarded with a special dog tag and a shout-out in front of her peers for simply asking Garcia, "What can I do to help?"
"I wasn't expecting that," said Mikaela, 13, who ended up directing students to their seats. "I was just doing what my parents always tell me to do."
"That's an example of the kind of character traits we want to see," Garcia said. "If everybody in the community did a little bit to help without being asked, this would be a much better world."