Gary Janssen (video)

Educator of Character 

Gary Janssen has been the superintendent of the Okoboji School District since 2011. He’s also been an assistant superintendent, principal, wrestling coach and Industrial Arts teacher, spending more than 30 years in the business of educating Iowa’s young people.

Gary’s nominator and daughter is Emily Luymes, a guidance counselor at Waukee Schools. She said, “I often turn to my Dad for both a fatherly perspective, as well as that of a superintendent. No matter the situation, my Dad’s advice is always the same... it is always better to be kind than right.”

Gary has earned the respect of students, parents, and the community by keeping his word and handling discipline problems with wisdom and student focused solutions.

Gary’s passion for others exceeds his role as superintendent. He even helped a school colleague by building a wheelchair ramp to her front door. He has donated hundreds of hours to the schools by dry walling, painting, cleaning, and building shelves and trophy cases.

Ryan Cunningham, Okoboji Middle School Principal said, “The job of a superintendent has a way of exposing the true colors of a person. I can say without a doubt that the pressure of the job exposed Gary’s immense depth of integrity.” 


Cardinal School District (video)

School of Character 

At the Cardinal School District the Six Pillars of Character are a big part of who they are. You can see their character in action in activities like The Workingman’s Christmas Party, where students and Eagles Club members provide gifts for needy children. Each spring, during ‘community-wide clean up’, students also help beautify the streets and parks of the local towns. When January arrives, they participate in the Great Kindness Challenge.

Programs like the Cardinal ‘no zero policy’, where students learn responsibility by always turning in all assignments and ‘Remind 101’, which informs students and parents of upcoming events and assignments, is how the Cardinal way reinforces responsibility.

Abby Conrad, Elementary Counselor at Cardinal, said “Cardinal staff and administration understand that without respect for students, each other and community members, our district would not succeed.”

At Cardinal they believe that good citizenship comes from a positive culture and the characteristics of trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness and caring. They know that ‘it’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.’ 


Cedar Valley (video

Community of Character 

CC! in the Cedar Valley committee was first organized 10 years ago to increase awareness of CHARACTER COUNTS! and the Six Pillars. The committee is made up of eight members of diverse backgrounds who spend many hours networking through schools, businesses and organizations to make an impact on character in their communities.

Over the last few years, the committee has developed some great cooperative efforts with various groups in the Cedar Valley area. They partner with the University of Northern Iowa for both the Ethics in Organization Symposium and the Ethics in Higher Education Conference on campus each year. Another partnership with the Iowa Youth Sports Initiative will utilize resources from Positive Coaching Alliance and Pursuing Victory with Honor to positively enhance the role of character development in sports.

Moving forward, the committee plans to begin discussions on the utilization of early childhood materials. They have already begun an effort with the city of Waterloo to help stem the rise in violence. Cedar Valley is a wonderful example of people coming together to make their communities a better place to live, work and play. 


Harbaugh-Williams Education Promise Fund (video

Organization of Chracter 

The Harbaugh-Williams Education Promise Fund began in January 2006 when Dennis Harbaugh and Juanita Williams made a promise to a class of 16 African American 1st grade boys at Dr. Walter Cunningham School of Excellence in Waterloo. That promise was to see them through graduation and provide up to two years of college, free of charge to the young boys. Nominators Michelle Temeyer and Bruce Clark said, “ Dennis and Juanita do not seek the limelight for their work, they consider it to be part of their life’s mission.”

Dennis and Juanita took action into their own hands when hearing of the
alarming statistic that two out of every three African American boys who enter Waterloo high schools fail to earn a diploma. Being proactive, they financially invested in the future of these young students and called upon the community to make an impact. With tremendous support from donors, Harbaugh-Williams Education Promise Fund announced in May
2014 that they have exceeded their fundraising goal of $321,000.

These 16 Brothers of Knowledge (BKC- a name they adopted themselves) will be seniors in high school. They participate in the district’s mentoring program, annual college visits, and various other educational, volunteer and social outings. Next year, donors of the Harbaugh-Williams Education Promise Fund will be able to see the 16 young men cross the stage to receive their diploma. 


Washington High School Peer Helpers/SADD (video) 

School Organization of Character 

The Washington High School Peer Helpers/SADD Organization is a great group of hard- working students who organize activities and events throughout the entire Washington School District.

At the high school they’re Student Ambassadors who help new students get acquainted with the school and make new friends. They help incoming freshmen through orientation activities and serve as mentors. Each year they organize activities for Red Ribbon Week for all grades. They present on the dangers of texting and driving at the middle school and high school and they help with the monthly Pillars of Character presentations at Stewart Elementary School.

Their principal, Erik Buccholz said, “They are especially aware of how important being a positive role model is to elementary students who look up to high school students.”

Some of the initiatives they’ve been involved with include participating in “Rock in Prevention”, working with elementary and special needs children who struggle with daily issues by developing activities to help students faced with mental illness. They’ve arranged and funded motivational speakers, tutored other students, raised money to help students in need, and, through “Share The Warmth”, they collected mittens, hats, scarves, and coats to help fellow students.

As an organization of character they demonstrate fairness, caring and respect by accepting everyone as members, understanding that poor decisions can be life lessons of the past and that everyone has the ability to shape a positive future. 


Ethan Lowder (video)

Citzen of Character 

Ethan Lowder is an exemplary student at Xavier Catholic Schools in Cedar Rapids. He is one of the youngest students to serve on the State of Iowa Youth Advisory Council (SIYAC), providing input to the Governor and working with state and local policymakers on issues that impact Iowa’s young people. In that capacity he worked hard to change the Iowa High School dropout age from 16 to 18. Through his volunteer internship with Zach Johnson’s Kids on Course University, Ethan has mentored younger students in math and science skills. He also worked with the Four Oaks Adopt-a-Family program and a women’s and youth homeless shelter in Cedar Rapids to collect hundreds of household and personal items to help families without homes of their own.

Ethan’s parents and nominators, Philip and Sue Lowder, said, “Ethan is proud of his work and the responsibility he has taken on. He has done all of this and still distinguishes himself as an excellent student, maintaining a 4.23 GPA, while also holding a part-time job.’

“Ethan stands tall as he incorporates the values of kindness, courage, respect and integrity into being a good citizen,” they said. “He cares deeply about the world around him and is an active, passionate and engaged part of his community.” 



Tyler Leech (video

Citizen of Character 

Tyler Leech is a graduate of Des Moines’ Lincoln High School and Des Moines Area Community College. He is an excellent example of a person of character. He is also a young man with autism. You may know Tyler from his job at Hy-Vee, where he has been providing excellent customer service for the past six years. But more importantly Tyler is a great role model and source of inspiration to those around him.

Tyler loves to help others. Just a few of the groups where Tyler has volunteered include: Riverside Bible Camp, Iowa Public Television, Habitat for Humanity and National Honor Society, where he tutored students in math. He has served on the Iowa Youth Advisory Board, which coordinates youth activities for the Des Moines area and makes recommendations to the city. And, he worked with the State of Iowa Youth Leadership Forum, teaching leadership and self-advocacy.

As a Global Messenger for Special Olympics, Tyler has given speeches at fundraisers, Christmas parties and competitions. He read for first, second and third grade students for several years and gave a talk on autism to third graders at Wright Elementary.

He’s been a member of the Lincoln High School Drama Club, Key Club, National Honor Society and National Council on Youth Leadership. And through it all Tyler has shown countless others what it means to be a good citizen who is trustworthy, respectful, responsible, fair and caring. 


Crash (video)

Mascot of Character 

As the mascot for the Iowa Wild hockey team, Crash is the face of the franchise and represents the entire organization throughout the community. He’s generous with his time, too, making over a hundred appearances throughout the year at area schools, hospitals, sports events and charity fundraisers.

“He is a proud supporter of the Iowa Wild Healthy Living Floor Hockey Program, working with Des Moines area schools to develop floor hockey programs in PE classes. He emphasizes the rules of the sport and the importance of being a good teammate,” says Crash’s nominator, Trish Bolander.

With the team’s ‘Wild About Reading’ program, Crash promotes reading with elementary
and middle school students and rewards readers with free hockey tickets. His school visits include talks about healthy choices, teamwork, respect and fairness. While his teammates do the talking, Crash demonstrates positive behaviors with his body language.

Trish said that Crash shows caring through the team’s annual Pink In The Rink game for Breast Cancer Awareness, where his pink jersey was auctioned off and they raised over $2,000 for the ALS Association and the Susan G. Komen Foundation.. 


Springville Girls Basketball Team (video)

Pursuing Victory with Honor Award

The Springville girls basketball team understands that they play for something bigger than themselves. They know that their behavior, on and off the court, is a source of pride for their school and community.

The girls give back to their community and the world. Over the last five years, the Springville girls basketball team has raised over $10,000 for charities to benefit those in need. They partnered with The Adventure Project to help employ farmers in Africa, well mechanics in India, and health care workers in Uganda.

The team continues to make an impact in their community, raising funds and volunteering time for causes such
as Kids Against Hunger and the Mission of Hope homeless shelter in Cedar Rapids. The players also helped build
a wiffle ball field for their community. Coach Nate Sanderson said, “We are challenged by the question, ‘What’s bigger than basketball?’ when working with our players. We want to utilize what we do to make a positive difference in the world.”

To show their gratitude for community support, the team regularly writes hand-written thank you notes to people who help along the way. The team finished the 2014-2015 season at the Iowa High School State Basketball Tournament as the Class 1A Runner-Up. 


Ed Banach (video)

Character Champion 

Ed Banach isn’t just a supporter of The Robert D. and Billie Ray Center. He is a passionate advocate and volunteer who spends countless hours expanding and shaping our mission and goals. Ed’s passion and lifelong success is a reflection of his outstanding character and commitment to being an influential role model to young athletes and his peers alike.

Ed’s extensive background in wrestling adds tremendous value in guiding and influencing our strategic plan. Ed is a 1984 Olympic Gold Medalist, three-time NCAA National Champion, four-time NCAA All-American and was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1993.

For over a decade, Ed has actively served on our Pursuing Victory with Honor Advisory Committee, a volunteer group that focuses on character and leadership development in athletics. His passion to positively influence the future of young athletes shines brightly in every meeting and event he attends. Ed also serves as an All-Star guest at our All-Star Evening.

Ed currently serves as the Assistant Director of Compliance at Iowa State University. 


Tim Vorland Photography (video)

Partner of the Year 

Tim Vorland Photography has been responsible for capturing our big moments on camera for many years. Tim and his staff all volunteer their time and talents and have become dear friends of our work and mission.

With our many events, Tim and his team have provided photography at our All-Star Evening and the Iowa Character Awards for nearly a decade. Each encounter with a Tim Vorland Photography team member is positive and friendly, a moment we look forward to at each event they are present. Their ability to help us create timeless memories for years to come is an invaluable asset to our organization.

Tim and his team have also served as photographers of the Des Moines Area chapter of the National Council on Youth Leadership (NCYL) since its inception 23 years ago. With their generosity, the team takes photos of 250 NCYL high school seniors each year at no cost.

Tim Vorland Photography’s commitment to our organization is reflective of their integrity as both a business and as individuals. 


Abigail Hammer (video)

Aaron Eilerts Community Service Award 

Ten-year-old Abigail Hammer is a friend to students who have been bullied. She stands up for students she sees being mistreated and reaches out to others and makes sure they have someone to sit with at lunch and play with on the playground.

Through her work in student council and as a student ambassador, Abigail has provided tours for building visitors, and welcomed new students, having lunch with them and introducing them to the staff.

The summer lemonade stand she operated raised $40 to $60 per week, which she donated to the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, an organization dedicated to eradicating childhood cancer.

Abigail also volunteers for the Soup Kitchen, The Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center and the Food Bank of Siouxland where she puts together food for their Kids Backpack Program. She looks forward to her fourteenth birthday, when she’ll be eligible to help the animals at the Siouxland Humane Society.

In her nomination Abigail is described as a young person who, “...maintains excellent grades, attendance, and character. She is active in her community by volunteering in the community theater, a local dance studio, as well as church activities. She has done fundraisers for the community and various causes – to raise money for things she feels strongly about.”

The Aaron Eilerts Service Award was named in honor of Iowa Boy Scout Aaron Eilerts from Eagle Grove. Aaron’s life was cut short when he was killed by a tornado that struck the Little Sioux Boy Scout Ranch in 2008. It is for his amazing commitment to serving others that we were honored to name this award after Aaron in 2009


Suku Radia (video)

Robert D. Ray Pillar of Character Award 

Suku Radia has been a vocal advocate for The Robert D. and Billie Ray Center since its inception as Character Counts In Iowa in 1997. The CEO and President of Bankers Trust, Suku leads the company with the core values of respect for diversity, corporate citizenship and community investment. He articulates and demonstrates good character in his everyday life as a well-known philanthropist in the Des Moines metro.

Suku is a familiar face to guests at our annual fundraising as he hosts the live auction in partnership with his close friend and live auctioneer, Rich Willis. Over the past decade, their active engagement and outgoing personalities during the live auction have helped generate over two million dollar to support programming for our organization. Suku continues his support of our mission year-round as Bankers Trust has been a Six Pillar Partner every year since we began our work.

As a community leader, Suku serves on the executive committees of the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines and Drake University. He also serves as vice chair for Bravo! and for the board of directors of Mercy Medical Center. Suku can often be found mentoring young professionals, as he is generous with his time and always willing to offer a helping hand. In 2010, he was inducted into the Iowa Business Hall of Fame. 


Rich Willis (video

Robert D. Ray Pillar of Character Award 

Rich Willis is the dealer principal at Willis Auto Campus in Des Moines and has been a consistent and passionate advocate of our work for many years. Rich’s personal character encompasses how he runs his business successfully by focusing on honesty, integrity, faith, family and community.

With his generosity, Rich supports our annual fundraising event, An All-Star Evening, by serving as the live auctioneer with his close friend, Suku Radia. Not only is his charismatic and entertaining personality responsible for raising over two million dollars to support our programming over the past decade, he leads with example by donating a Lexus lease each year to be auctioned.

Rich is a staple of the Des Moines Metro, displaying his strong character and citizenship by donating his time and resources throughout the community. He currently serves on the Board of Simpson College, John Stoddard Cancer Center and IMT Insurance. In 2013, he was named Outstanding Volunteer Fundraiser by the Central Iowa Chapter Association of Fundraising Professionals. 


Link to Upcoming Classes
Your Character Minute
October 20, 2016
October 13, 2016