PENDLETON — The students sat on the gym floor at Pendleton Elementary-Intermediate School, literally and figuratively looking up to the high school students leading group presentations.

The older students, athletes from Pendleton Heights High School, are part of a group from Madison County known as Athletes of Character.

The athletes travel to schools around the county, sharing life experiences and what it takes to be a successful student-athlete in high school. They speak at convocations, where they discuss the “Six Pillars of Character” associated with the outreach program.

The program was started 16 years ago by now-retired YMCA Director Dan Sager and the non-profit group Character Counts of Madison County; it is sponsored by the YMCA.

The idea is for the athletes to meet with younger students and share how building a strong base of character can lead to success in high school and down the road, insights intended to help shape young lives.

Bringing the high school athletes into the schools to interact with the younger students is a great way to provide positive role models who demonstrate what good character can accomplish with education, Sager said.

The athletes are selected by their athletic directors, coaches and administrators based on how they have demonstrated the “Six Pillars of Character” — trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship.

Aaron Candiano, a senior football player at Pendleton Heights High School and one of the Athletes of Character, said he loves being part of the program.

He said he always looked up to the older students when he was younger and is happy now to be part of the program.

“I don’t think it is hard to be a role model because all you have to do is be a good person,” he said. “That’s just the right thing to do, in my mind.”

Local donations help pay for posters displaying all 36 county athletes selected, individual trading cards and training expenses.

Eye-catching posters are distributed to local businesses, schools and offices around the county, and individual trading cards of the athletes are shared in the elementary schools with students during convocations.

The Six Pillars of Character are defined on the back of the posters and trading cards.

It’s a great honor to be part of the program, Candiano said. He plans to attend college, play football and study business with a minor in Spanish.

Representing the high school and having young students come up to him and show off his trading card give him almost a sense of being a celebrity, and it feels awesome to be recognized, Candiano said. For educators, it’s a win-win program.

The Pendleton Elementary-Intermediate students always enjoy hearing from the high schoolers, principal Arlene Dawson said.

“They listen well and take in what the athletes tell them about having good character,” she said.

This year four of the six athletes who visited Pendleton Elementary- Intermediate attended the school as fifth- and-sixth-graders.

Local High School Athletes of Character:

Pendleton Heights High School athletes: Aaron Candiano, McKenna Jule, Elijah Bauer, Lauren Landes, Trent Miller and Natalie Taylor.

Lapel High School athletes: Joseph Conrad, Taylor Murdock, Josiah Hudson, Alyssa Whaley, Preston Scott and Levi Frazier.

Author photo
Kristy Deer is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3262 or