CUDDEBACKVILLE - With a theme of “overcoming obstacles,” Hamilton Bicentennial Elementary School in Cuddebackville held its fifth annual Leadership Day, presenting a poignant yet inspiriting morning assembly, followed by a day-long roster of community volunteers who spoke with students in classes from kindergarten to sixth grade.

In video testimonials, faculty members told the assemblage of some 400 students their stories of being faced with adversity, then ultimately finding strength in its challenges. A fourth-grade teacher, the mother of a child with a rare genetic disorder, said she learned to “look for the light” in dark places, and to “be that light for others.” A colleague recounted the struggle of her first child, born prematurely and weighing not much more than 2 pounds; that child was sitting in the audience as a healthy, happy sixth grader. A fifth-grade teacher told the students how “faith, family, and friends” helped her cope with a diagnosis of stage 3 breast cancer.

HBE’s leadership program is structured upon Stephen R. Covey’s 1989 best-seller, “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” and teaches paradigmatic principle-based skills such as being proactive, putting first things first, and synergizing.

“It’s the most important work we do,” said Kara Raap, chair of HBE’s Character Education Committee and coordinator of the day’s events. “Academics are very important, but when someone is facing any kind of adversity in life, they’re going to refer back to character education - how someone inspired them, what they learned from someone else’s experience. That’s what they’re going to lean on.”

Four members of the Tri-State Area Amputee Support Group addressed the assembly, accompanied by physical therapist Karen Little. An emotional Al Gessner, owner of Al’s Music Shop in Port Jervis and founding member of the Broome Street Bands, said he was dispassionate about living after losing his right leg in a freak accident eight years ago. But then his accordion was brought into the ICU, and he began playing ...

Story after story - the Port Jervis High School varsity softball team, underdogs who became Section 9 champions; the young woman (Blaise Gomez) raised in foster care who stayed focused on her goals and is now an Emmy-nominated reporter for News 12 Hudson Valley - resonated with the elementary students as they listened intently, applauded, and asked questions.

A particularly moving portion of the program was when composer, librettist and HBE alumnus Evan Mack provided piano accompaniment to a chorus of raised voices in a resounding rendition of the alma mater he had penned especially for the school. Mack, who has played the concert halls of Venice, Barcelona, and South Africa, as well as the iconic Carnegie Hall, told the student body, “The highlight of my career has been writing the alma mater for HBE.”

In more intimate classroom settings, representatives from law enforcement, local government, private business and public service delivered words of inspiration and encouragement, dovetailed with the character ethics of the seven habits.

Corey Taylor has undergone more than 50 surgeries in an attempt to give his face some structure. Born with craniofacial deformity, a congenital musculoskeletal disorder which affects the cranium and facial bones, the 29-year-old has had to accept that doctors can do no more aesthetically.

The fifth graders Taylor spoke with had been cautioned that their visitor looked “different.” But they received him with nonchalance, bolstered, he surmised, by having recently read R.J. Palacio’s “Wonder,” the story of a boy with a severe facial disfigurement. The 10-year-olds were receptive, then, to Taylor’s advice to eschew divisiveness and “join together, show support for your peers.”

Port Jervis High School math teacher Carolyn Dorritie spoke quietly to a class of attentive sixth graders. “My story is sad,” she told them, as, choosing her words carefully and considerately, she recounted a day in September 2009, when a house fire claimed the lives of two of her daughters, along with a friend who had spent the night.

“There are obstacles that are small, little bumps in the road,” Dorritie told the class. “Then there are obstacles that are like a fence you have to climb over. But then there are obstacles you can’t even see the top of, and to get over them, you need everyone - a community, a school, your friends, your family - everybody, to help.”

Dorritie, nominated for New York State Teacher of the Year, voted PJHS Favorite Teacher, and accepted into New York State’s Master Teacher Program, stressed that when she returned to work after the tragedy, it was not to a job or even to a career. It is her calling, said Dorritie, to be there for her students. “I didn’t come back just to teach,” she said. “I came back to make a difference."