Monday, January 24, 2022

Have a Seat and Make a Friend on the Buddy Bench!

Rumination from the Rock and Beyond

Recently, Tommie Barfield Elementary School (TBE) formally dedicated two Buddy Benches for the playgrounds, donated by Collier County Schools. From identical donations, in fact, all Collier County Elementary Schools each dedicated two Buddy Benches to support their emphasis on kindness, family, and social/emotional well-being. District-wide personnel were on hand at each school to support the students, who made the presentations, and the staff.

“Art teacher, Mary Hopkins and facility manager, Dan Dupuis also created two Buddy Benches so there would be plenty of space and support for students in additional playground areas. Friendship Ambassadors, three per class at TBE, have been coached to notice the bench and interact with someone who sits there. Other students can, of course, reach out to another student, whether a new student or not, to help them feel included,” according to Leanne Hope, school counselor.

Sara Geddis, a fifth grade presenter at the dedication event, explained, “When we go over to the bench and ask the person if they want to play, they almost always say ‘Yes,’ so we go and play. When we get to know each other they hardly ever go back to the bench because they have friends.”

The TBE students dedicated the two benches by grade levels. The first was for third to fifth grade and the second bench was in a kindergarten to second grade play area. According to School Counselor Leanne Hope, who organized the event, “Friendship Ambassadors in the audience were attentive to the student leaders and cheered when the ribbons were cut to formally dedicate the benches. They did an excellent job.”

Principal Katie Maya with Sara Geddis, Michael Baires Granado and Maddison Stolinas.

Principal Katie Maya, Assistant Principal Alyssa Ledbetter and Reading Coach Molly Skudnig joined Principal for the Day, Steve Cormier, a devoted TBE volunteer, who participated in the events along with two members of the Marco Island Police Department school safety team, Officers Emilio Rodriquez and Paul Ashby.

Buddy Benches are popping up on school playgrounds across the country, thanks to the insight of a little boy named Christian. When Christian Bucks was seven years old in York, Pennsylvania, his family planned to move to Germany and Christian was worried about being the “new” kid and not having any friends. As he read about Germany, he discovered that there was a school with a Buddy Bench, where a child could sit and other students would come over and offer to talk or invite the student to play.

When the family decided not to move, Christian brought the idea to his principal, Matthew Miller, and explained how isolation and loneliness could be cushioned through contact with a caring child. Think about it – our friends today were once strangers, right?

Mr. Miller enthusiastically supported Christian’s idea and the two of them worked on the project. Word spread. After an article about the Buddy Bench was published in the local York newspaper, media picked up on the story. Pretty soon they were doing a TedTalk together and before they knew it, Buddy Benches were being installed on many playgrounds in the USA and around the world. It’s estimated that there are over 2,000 Buddy Benches now being used in our country (well, now 2,027, with Collier County’s elementary schools added).

TBE student, Ayla Vatansever said, “I like the Buddy Bench because if there is somebody that needs to have a friend you could just go up to them, and if they want to, can be your friend.” Simple, eh, in the experience of a child.

Ella Lindgren, also from TBE, agreed, “If someone is on the bench, you could get them and then you could play with them.”

Seeing someone sitting on the bench may mean many things; I need someone to talk to, I have a problem, I want to play, but don’t want to be turned away, I’m lonely… Serious issues would be referred to the school counselor.

Christian is an example of a tender-hearted child seeing a solution to a problem that the adults around him hadn’t yet considered and how goodness spreads. The great news is that there are other students around the country that are furthering the message of kindness and taking the initiative to install benches. There are too many to include here, but their stories are heartwarming. One student collected 1,600 lbs. of plastic bottle lids to offset the cost of the bench, for which the recycled bottle tops were used. Ingenuity and environmentally conscious to further the message!

Some of the messages on Buddy Benches include these taken from the internet: Friendship Bench, Buddy Zone, Be a Friend-Make a Friend, Kindness Bench, It’s Nice to Have Friends, Be Kind, and more. On some, the artwork is vibrant and unique. Maybe we should listen to the students.

Jory Westberry has been a dedicated educator for over 40 years, the last 14 as Principal of Tommie Barfield Elementary, where she left her heart. Life is rich with things to learn, ponder and enjoy so let’s get on with the journey together!

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