Sometimes in life you can meet a person totally by accident who will say something that can be relevant to your own personal experience ... but in a life-changing way.

I make jewelry and sell my work at open-air events. I have never worked in the educational field, nor even thought much about it, other than from fervently believing that teachers—those who educate our children—should be among the highest-paid professionals in the land instead of the lowest.

Jim Cantoni was just another customer at the market at History Park in Punta Gorda where I set up every Sunday in season. He had bought a piece of jewelry for his wife. I seldom talk much when I’m selling, because I’m there to do business. But when Jim started to tell me about his life’s work, I was forced to pay attention.

Cantoni defines himself as a life coach. He teaches and he educates, although his formal training is in business and not in education. He received his MBA from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and his undergraduate degree in business from Central Connecticut State University. But in my opinion his mind is equipped with two essential tools which put him in the league with the educational experts: critical thinking and compassion. You can’t teach much without these two essentials, nor can anyone learn much when the educator lacks them.

Over two decades, Cantoni and his wife Jackie have been developing a theory of educating youth called “Realizing Dreams.” It is a youth empowerment program designed to create a mindset of growth, positive self-image and accomplishment. Workshops with students are presented in schools, and to kids as young as sixth grade. In these workshops students are given exercises that require both individual and group effort in order to complete a project, therefore achieving a goal. One of these is to build a house of cards.

A house of cards?!

You think, wait a minute, that’s impossible. No, it isn’t, it’s just very hard. The fact is there are physical laws that make it entirely possible, and the students’ task is to discover these laws and operate by them. Imagine the feeling of self-accomplishment and pride in actually achieving this! Jim feels that workshops like this should be started with children as young as first grade.

“We need to help youth discover what they want to do, and a reason why to do it,” he said. “Our young people thrive when they discover the answers to ‘Who am I, what do I want to do, and how do I create a game plan to get there?’ These are the three big questions.

“We all stand on the shoulders of giants,” he continued. “Einstein said that imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.”

The house of cards workshop was held in Punta Gorda in early April. Unfortunately, I missed that one. But I did get to see one right here in Arcadia at DeSoto County High School. This workshop was different; it was presented to a group called High School High Tech, a grant funded program that works with students with disabilities to achieve their post-high school goals, whether it be entering directly into the workforce or going to college. It also used cards, but these were used in a totally different way. The project here was to get all the students interacting, conversing, and thinking about their future.

All of the 19 students present were handed a card with a title written in bold letters that represented a positive trait, such as “character,” “creativity,” “responsibility” and “grit.” Underneath these titles were questions for the students to ask each other, and to answer. The students were asked to choose partners. The question under the “honesty” title, for example, was: “If you could live or experience one day over again, what would it be, and why?” This resulted in a roomful of students all talking animatedly about their subject matter. There were a lot of smiles, and even some laughter. Teacher Courtney Gammad presided over the workshop, and high school principal Dave Bremer watched from a quiet corner of the room.

Realizing Dreams also has significance for adults. Cantoni trains teachers as well as students to think with this new mindset. And anyone can benefit from this, no matter what age. For me, looking back on my youth and childhood, if such a program had existed, I’m sure I could have avoided many pitfalls growing up. It is never too late, though, and that is why I think that Realizing Dreams is revolutionary.

The time for Realizing Dreams is now.

Jim Cantoni has also written an article in a book called Cracking the Code to Success, which is a compilation of articles by successful people in all kinds of fields, each explaining how they feel they got to their level of success.

“If Einstein was right,“ he said, “we must imagine what we can become if we collaborated to unlock the gifts of every person around the world. We can increase student self-awareness and unlock their gifts. We can develop an internal drive with focus and motivation to reach their potential. Now imagine if every student realized his or her dreams and self-actualized, what would that do for our society?”

Jim’s wife Jackie has written a book called Are You Ready?—A Guide to the Best Version of You. It deals with teaching students and adults to create an effective resume, and a presentation of themselves that builds their confidence.

Seems to me that this “dynamic duo,” as they like to think of themselves, may have some tools to help us, and our youth, to navigate what are some very troubled waters in today’s world.

Jim Cantoni can be reached by email at cantoni@realizingdreams.us, or find him on the web at www.realizingdreams.us.

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