For kids who are shy or don't quite "fit in," school recess can be a lonely experience.
Many of us have been there, standing alone on the playground, wanting to join in the fun and games but not sure how. During one of the few times in the school day where kids are free to socialize at will, not having friends can be painful.
Sammie Vance sitting on one of the 'buddy benches' she had made for her school. Photo via Heidi Vance.
When I first read an article about "buddy benches," I loved the idea. Basically, a buddy bench is a place where kids who need a friend and kids who want to be a friend can find one another, simply by sitting down. It's a sweet, straightforward way to connect and make sure that everyone gets included who wants to be.
9-year-old Sammie Vance from Fort Wayne, Indiana, wanted to install buddy benches at her school. So she put together a creative proposal.
First she drew an illustration showing what her buddy bench would look like and how it would be used. "If someone is lonely they can go sit on the bench," she says, "and others know to go up and ask them to play."
Then she presented it to her principal at Haley Elementary School.
Sammie's plan for her school's Buddy Bench shows how it works. Image courtesy of Heidi Vance.
Um, who could say no to that? Not surprisingly, she received enthusiastic approval. However, the issue of paying for the benches remained.
Sammie and her mom, Heidi, got to work. They found a company that creates benches from recycled plastic at a third of the cost of what a new one would be. The only catch is they had to provide the plastic — 400 pounds of it per bench.
Sammie enlisted the entire community in her project to collect plastic lids to recycle into buddy benches. Photos via Heidi Vance.
So the Vances, along with classmates, community members, and area businesses, started collecting plastic bottle caps and lids, along with donations to pay the $225 fee to create the benches.
Sammie took her bottlecap initiative beyond Fort Wayne — and even beyond Indiana. She set a goal to get bottle caps sent from all 50 states.
Sammie received bottlecaps from all 50 states, which got added to the 1200+ pounds of caps she collected in two months. Photo via Heidi Vance.
Sammie and Heidi thought it would take a year to collect enough bottle caps for one bench. They ended up collecting enough for three benches in two months.
"I'm so proud of her," Heidi told Wane.com. "I can't believe in less than three months we've collected over 1,200 pounds of caps. She wanted to make the appointment with the principal, pitched this idea and he rallied behind it, and the community rallied behind it. We're so thankful. This can benefit the kids for years to come."
Sammie does a bottlecap celebration dance. GIF via Heidi Vance.
The kids at Haley Elementary aren't the only ones to benefit. Other area schools have followed Sammie's example and started collecting caps for their own buddy benches.
For her inspiring work, Sammie received accolades from Fort Wayne's mayor, who presented the third-grader with a certificate of excellence. Go, Sammie!
Sammie chats with Fort Wayne, Indiana mayor, Tom Henry, who presented her a Certificate of Excellence for her buddy bench project. Photos via Heidi Vance.
Sammie reminds us of the good that one dedicated person can do — and her buddy benches remind all kids to watch out for one another.
People who have not experienced social isolation aren't always aware of the struggles some face. Shyness and social anxiety can make it hard for kids to make friends, and the pressures of the playground can be a lot to handle. As a shy kid myself, I always appreciated it when a more outgoing kid would invite me to play.
A buddy bench helps facilitate that process. Not only is it a way for lonely kids to find friends; it's also a visual reminder to all that some kids might be feeling left out. Even just seeing the bright yellow bench might be enough for kids to look for isolated peers and reach out to them.
Sammie says, "I don't want anyone to feel lonely, so I keep my eye out on the buddy bench during school at recess." Ultimately, she'd like to see buddy benches at every school.
After they were installed at her school, Sammie recreated her comic, and it's the best thing ever.
Image courtesy of Heidi Vance.
"Kids can do anything — it doesn't just have to be adults," Sammie says. "They can make a huge difference in the world."