Travis Manion Foundation pairs veterans with youth to teach character amid COVID-19 pandemic

The foundation was started by the family of a Marine killed in Iraq.

The development of a "good" and honorable character is "perhaps the central task of any civilized society," columnist Richard Reeves once wrote. That task has become the mission of the Travis Manion Foundation.

The foundation is the brainchild of Janet and Ryan Manion, the mother and sister of Gold Star Marine 1st Lt. Travis Manion, who was killed in Iraq in 2007. Ryan now serves as TMF’s president. The program allows veterans to once again feel a sense of purpose, and reengage with their community, while teaching what it means to be a public-spirited, generous and ethical citizen.

"Before Travis left for his second deployment, he was asked why he had to go back and he answered, 'If not me, then who?'" Ryan Manion told ABC News. The foundation took those "five words" as the ethos of the program, in order to "share what it means to be a selfless servant," she said.

Now, said Manion, "I get to wake up every day and be in service to others through my brother's name."

While math, English and languages are taught in school, "it's not the norm that kids are being taught about developing their character," said Manion.

By narrating their personal stories, and through character-based activities, veterans seek to demonstrate in a positive and concrete way, what it means to have character, then challenging students to do the same.

There are over 2,000 veterans and family members of fallen service members across the country who have gone through the program and it has been presented to approximately 400,000 students across the country, according to Manion.

In response to nationwide school closings because of the coronavirus pandemic, the TMF started a campaign called "Character Isn't Canceled."

"In times like this, we can't afford to sit on the sidelines," Manion said in a press release. "Just because school is canceled, it doesn't mean that character should be canceled. With millions of students learning remotely from their own homes, we saw an opportunity to offer this curriculum -- for free -- to any family that thinks they could benefit from it. This is the exact moment where all of us can make a difference by serving our communities, and that's exactly what our curriculum teaches."

The Character Does Matter program is broadcast on social media each weekday at 1 p.m. for 30 minutes. A different veteran is featured every day, discussing a particular character strength, sharing a personal story and demonstrating, through activities, how to develop that particular strength. The veteran is then available to respond to youth in real time via the comments section.

Parents are encouraged to participate along with their children in the sessions, and thus far, over 185,000 people have participated in the lessons.

Among the Character Does Matter mentors is Theresa Jones, a Gold Star wife to Lt. Cmdr. Landon Jones, U.S. Navy, and mother to their two sons, Anthony and Hunter, who were respectively 6 years old and 2 months old when their father was killed in a helicopter crash over the Red Sea in 2013.

"When my husband died, I was terrified," Jones told ABC News. Her goal has been to help herself and others, and to "take this tragedy and use it in a positive way."

Gold Star families have "all been through something so horrific, we're all putting it to good use, like it's propelling us to do something positive," Jones said.

She added that the camaraderie and support she has derived from the Travis Manion Foundation has helped her personally: "I feel like they are my family."

Jones said character traits she often seeks to develop in her audience are resiliency, perseverance, forgiveness and in particular, gratitude. And, she says, "It's really focusing on that gratitude piece, especially when you feel like you've lost so much, and really being thankful for what you have right now in front of you."

Jimmy White, a U.S. Navy veteran who served during Operation Iraqi Freedom, is another mentor. He became involved in Philadelphia as a volunteer for the Character Does Matter program, when he realized that he still had so much to give.

"We have this deep sense of excellence [in the Submarines]," White told ABC News. "That's what I was missing -- this camaraderie, this call to serve. As a veteran, there is still a community out there that I need to serve, and when I read, 'If not me, then who,' I realized that's what I was missing."

As a mentor, he said, "I get to tell children about the character traits that I learned from my time in the military, my time as a father, my time as a husband and explain to them that character is what has made his accomplishment possible. My character is what has allowed me to succeed."

Relationships between these veterans and some of the children they seek to serve, can be long-lasting, and empowering for some of these youths.

White recalled a presentation he gave at a school in Baltimore for lacrosse players. One player, he said, was clearly disengaged.

"I said, 'Come up front with me to lead the rest of the presentation.' The boy's eyes lit up," White described.

Learning that the student had been the victim of bullying, White sent him a letter in which he lauded the boy's courage for speaking up.

"I'm so proud of you and I can't wait to see what else you accomplish in life. Let me know if you need anything,'" he wrote. For years, the student kept the letter in his wallet, in order to read it when down. "This is the type of impact that we can make through the Travis Manion Foundation."

Character does matter, White stressed, and when essential traits such as selflessness, leadership and service are instilled, it benefits the nation as a whole.

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