Lakeland -- The state's embattled child-welfare agency wants to build a more compassionate, efficient work force through a character fitness program with roots in biblical teachings.
The Character First! program has sparked controversy on grounds that it breaches the wall dividing church and state.
Program administrators insist course materials are strictly secular.
Still, Character First! has been embraced by Gov. Jeb Bush and Jerry Regier, the state's childwelfare chief who has pledged to restore the agency's credibility and boost morale.
Currently, the program is being taught in the Department of Children & Families' Orlando district, and it soon may come to District 14, which includes Polk, Highlands and Hardee counties.
"I think it has a lot of positive points to it that may be good for staff," said Cynthia Schuler, administrator of the DCF unit based in Lakeland.
Schuler said Regier has urged that she and her counterparts consider Character First! training for all employees, but he did not make it mandatory.
In the next few weeks, some key personnel from Schuler's office will attend character training sessions in Orlando and report their findings.
Should the program come to Polk, DCF workers will be schooled on 49 character qualities, such as alertness, diligence, humility and tolerance.
They may carry a pocket guide to success that lists the traits, lest they forget.
Metaphors play a part, as well. The trait of determination uses the king salmon to teach how to ignore distractions and face problems head-on.
The eagle is used to portray responsibility, and cliff swallows depict punctuality.
Some of history's more accomplished humans also serve as role models, including George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison and George Washington Carver.
But the program wasn't exactly the morale booster it was intended to be in Orlando's DCF District 7, which includes Brevard County.
Workers told the Florida Today newspaper they were insulted by lessons to instill compassion, dependability, endurance, loyalty, truthfulness and 44 other character qualities.
Those qualities form the basis of the teachings of a conservative Christian evangelist named Bill Gothard and his Illinois-based Institute of Basic Life Principles.
As reported in 1999 by The Wall Street Journal, Gothard has identified 49 biblical character qualities that form the basis of the Character First! curriculum.
Nationwide, the Character First! program is now in hundreds of businesses, municipal and state offices, the military and several thousand schools, said Larry Rhoads, executive director of the Character Training Institute, which owns and distributes the program.
"Our goal is truly to help each employee become successful," he said. "A person's character greatly impacts success, specifically in decision-making."
Rhoads was critical of efforts by the media and civil libertarians to draw comparisons between his program and Gothard's teachings.
"We are not legally or financially connected to the Institute of Basic Life Principles," he said. "What we have in common are the character qualities. That's the thing that people seem not to understand."
Schuler, of the DCF in Lakeland, said she doesn't understand all the fuss with Character First! "The philosophy is to acknowledge the positive character traits that many of our employees have. When I read the (Florida Today) article, I was really surprised, because the intent is to boost morale."
Rather than simply spring the program on staff, Schuler said she'll first solicit ideas on how to implement it without insulting people. "We have real talented and creative people here."