With the holiday season fast approaching, many of us can’t help but become entranced with thinking about the festivities—special foods, shiny decor, “must have” gifts, and a splendid array of whimsical events. Included in the focus during this season and in fact year round should be renewed attention to virtues: gratitude, friendship, honesty, sharing, stewardship, and love. Keeping such virtues front and center is important on an individual level, but two local ladies are shooting much higher.

Envisioning Virtues

Published 12:45pm Friday, November 9, 2012 Updated 12:45pm Friday, November 9, 2012

Global change is what they are after, but they’ll settle for accomplishing it one person at a time. Likening it to mountain climbing, coworkers and friends Lea Starzl and Katie Michealson embrace their venture with inspiration, dedication, and a whole lot of hard work. Admitting they are rookies in the business world, their vision engulfs their hesitation.

These ladies are the entrepreneurs of Living Character, their business centered on building character in children through positive virtues. Their focus includes being proactive and teaching people, especially children, to change their thinking, thus making a positive difference in their lives and ultimately our world. Changing the culture, shifting the way people think and likewise act and treat others, is part of the long-term vision. As Lea puts it, “If you’re thinking in positive ways it impacts how you act and speak and live. It’s a chain of events and when you are thinking positively, you feel more joyful.”

The friendship between the two reached deep levels when Lea’s husband, Rob, served in Iraq for 22 months and Katie stepped in to help on the home front. Lea says, “She’s like the little sister I never had. She became family to us. She was my rock while Rob was away those 22 months.”

Katie and Lea’s business enterprise began in the fall of 2009 when they were disturbed about a student’s choice to don a t-shirt on promoting beer. “At school we noticed poor student choices – clothing and also how they spoke and treated others including peers and teachers – a lack of respect,” says Lea. “This got Katie and I talking. We knew there needed to be a change. We wondered what we could do.” Character building and virtues came to mind, but with a different twist. Katie says, “We don’t want to be anti-bully, we want to be proactive. Instead of backtracking to fix a problem, we want to instill this in kids. We want them to make healthy choices.” The two felt strongly that something more than words alone would have greater appeal and be more effective in reaching children. Lea had been recently working with pipe cleaners in an art class she was taking, and the idea of using stick people to portray examples of character building in familiar situations was born.

Initially they produced shirts targeted toward younger kids to help “advertise positive virtues,” notes Katie. Passionate work sessions helped them come up with ideas for situations depicting their stick people (fashioned from pipe cleaners) making good choices. Graphic designer Jeanne Anderson “has been instrumental,” they note. Perseverance, courage, and creativity were amongst the earliest virtues they depicted, followed by gratitude, cooperation, determination, kindness, respect and an abundance of others.

Soon Katie and Lea agreed they wanted more, starting with a motto to appeal to older children. Lea explains, “Everything starts with our thoughts. It affects everyone.” They conceived “Think-Act-Speak-Live-Impact—think in positive ways, act responsibly, speak kindly, live joy-filled, and impact our world.” Their “Stick With Your Virtues” product line has blossomed into books, calendars, posters, bookmarks, and more (check out their website, www.livingcharacter.com, where you can even take the Living Character Pledge!).The friends will continue working together to reach out, especially to parents, pastors, counselors, and teachers, whom they feel can be instrumental in bringing change.

Beginning the business was no easy task, and continually brings new mountains to climb. Every stage of their journey has been into unchartered territory for both Katie and Lea. The two laugh as they admit they “have no idea what they’re doing.” Reading The Idiot’s Guide to Marketing and doing a lot of online research has helped, as did the initial conference they attended in 2009, where they were inspired by Jill Blashack Strahan, founder of Minnesota company Tastefully Simple. Both ladies have pledged to do this debt-free (investing and re-investing as they can) alongside their full time careers (Lea, an American Sign Language Interpreter and Katie, Teacher of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing) and family commitments. Making time for the business can be tricky. They have developed a phrase to help keep each other going, even when progress seems slow: “PIP” they call it—”progress is progress,” which the women use to enforce that even the littlest things count. If all that gets done in a day is finding a prop for one of their scenes (miniatures are hard to find ), that’s worthy of “PIP” affirmation. Lea also mentioned that “Stick people are not cooperative models,” as she voiced some frustration with getting the scenes just right. “TIC” is another invented acronym the pair use often—standing for “Today I Can…” as a positive take on the traditional “To Do List.” Reminding themselves of the very virtues they base their business on keeps them going. Noting that it takes anywhere from 5-200 pictures to get it right, Lea says, “Patience is a virtue!”

Challenges exist, but rewards have also come along the way, as Lea notes she especially enjoys seeing someone “connecting with a product – they smile, laugh, are reminded of when they were little – relating to the characters.” Katie has enjoyed the writing side of things, and both revel in using their creative sides in photography and designing. Ultimately they both thrive in the strong passion for what their business stands for. When thinking about the future, Katie imparts several thoughts. “I fear success more than I fear failure. There’s huge responsibility and expectation if this takes off,” she notes. “We’ll need more employees working with us,” adding, “We see people and say we can’t wait until they work with us!”

Hoping to reach people on a global level and making positive change is a lofty goal. Katie and Lea have already climbed several figurative mountains in getting there, and intend to persist in their quest. Katie concludes, “We don’t have to know what we’re doing, we just have to be willing and trust God, that He is propelling us even when we don’t know. We have to try, and believe in our product and our vision.”

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