Close to 300 people attended the 3rd Character Conference on Oct. 25. (Submitted photo)

Third Character Conference built strong community connections in Abbotsford

Nearly three hundred attendees explored character-based leadership

The hugely diverse audience composed of educators, first responders, entrepreneurs, professionals and students is what made the 3rd Character Conference on Oct. 25 an especially powerful experience. The commonality among all attendees was their desire to lead with character and better their communities – whether at their workplace, school, organization, or neighbourhood.

Participants came to hear keynote addresses from Barb Stegemann, a celebrated social entrepreneur, and Mike Smith, a leader in outreach to at-risk youth. Breakout sessions were distinctively local discussions on character-based leadership, with speakers ranging from Police Chief Mike Serr on finding strength in community to Abby Senior Principal Rob Comeau on the tragic events of Nov. 1, 2016. Attendees enjoyed food and drink from vendors such as Restaurant 62, Lepp Farm Market, Everything Wine, Field House Brewery, and Banter Ice Cream.

Most of all, participants came to connect with others who are intentionally making a difference and to reflect on the mark that they want to leave on their own communities.

At the reception, where attendees traded their moments from the day while enjoying charcuterie and ice cream, Character Abbotsford conference chair Jory Smallenberg took a moment to appreciate the day.

“It was an honour to chair this conference, especially as a young adult,” she said. “A few years ago, the people in this room were my teachers, principals, leaders, and role models. Now, I have the opportunity to give back.”

She concluded by stating that “Abbotsford’s collective foundation of character will continue to lead us, guide us, and challenge us in the days to come.”

Morning keynote Stegemann echoed Smallenberg’s sentiments by speaking powerfully about the importance of devoting your energy to what builds up instead of focusing on what tears down. Sharing community-based stories from her company, the 7Virtues, she concluded that “what matters most is the impact we make on the world, not how much money we leave in our bank accounts.”

Afternoon keynote Mike Smith, a self-declared “professional teenager,” appeared to be a stark opposite to Barb, but carried much of the same passion for being a change maker, social entrepreneur, and trailblazer in his industry.

“The reason I like speaking to young people is because they are still chasing after adventure. We can get stuck chasing stuff as we get older,” Smith said.

Interspersed between the keynotes were two breakout sessions, featuring facilitators from many walks of life, including education, first responders, and young adults. On the increasing participation of students this year, Smallenberg noted that she hoped for “many young people in Abbotsford to experience authentic community and to learn from leaders of integrity.”

Vijay Manuel, chair of Character Abbotsford, led a breakout on Character in Action which featured everyday heroes in our community.

“It is refreshing to learn of new initiatives that have a great impact in our city,” he said. “I was reminded of the small actions each of us can do to ignite larger change.”

But it was not only the facilitators and organizers who were challenged and inspired. City Councillor Patricia Ross praised conference organizers for an “amazing event,” calling the opening and closing speakers “outstanding.” Nancy Des Ormeaux, Smallenberg’s first-grade teacher, stated that “it is always so awesome to bump into former students and see how they are contributing to the community and what they are accomplishing with their skills and talent.”

The conference’s host organization, Character Abbotsford, includes founders from the City of Abbotsford, Abbotsford School District, Police and Fire Rescue Services, Abbotsford Chamber of Commerce, and the University of the Fraser Valley, to name a few. It’s a non-political, non-religious group with a mission of Inspiring Character, Enabling Leaders, Influencing Community.

The organization encourages people to identify the core values that matter most, and actively integrate them into their organizations and daily lives. It is without question that everybody who attended the Character Conference will have plenty of inspiration, direction, and vital community connections for doing exactly that.

To learn more about the character movement, visit

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