Moving to Emerson Elementary School toward the end of his second-grade year, Grant Smith didn’t know anyone at his new school. He felt like an outsider.
But now, as he finishes his fifth-grade year, he has a lot of friends and knows most of the students.
He wants all new students at the school to feel included, so he asked principal Julie Kelly about installing a Buddy Bench on the school’s playground.
The idea is that if a student sees another student sitting on the bench, he or she would ask them to play. That ensures people are friendly to each other and everyone feels included, and it helps prevent bullying.
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Since the bench was installed a year ago, Grant said he has noticed a difference at the school.
“When I saw some people (sitting on the bench), I said to my friend, ‘Hey, let’s go see if they want to play to see if this Buddy Bench actually works,’” he said. “That person said, ‘Yeah, what do you want to do?’ I didn’t even know them, but now I know them.”
That helped him realize the impact of the 6-foot-long red bench.
“To be bullied is a bad thing,” he said. “I’ve never really experienced it, but I know people that have experienced it, and that kind of helped me come to a conclusion that maybe doing that Buddy Bench was a good idea.”
Grant moved from St. Ambrose Catholic School to Emerson since the school has resources to help with his learning disability, dyslexia. Once he started working with specialists at Emerson, he went from making B’s and C’s to A’s and B’s.
During that time, Grant was in the same room as kids with autism. That led to him pursuing the Buddy Bench.
His mother, Christina Smith, saw a video about a Buddy Bench on Facebook, and that caught his attention.
During an open house at the school, Grant shared the idea with Kelly. She said she had recently heard about a Buddy Bench, too, and she gave him a catalog and asked him to do some research to find prices.
Once Grant picked one out, it was time to seek funding. Some of it came from money donated to the school’s special education fund, while the remainder came from the school’s parent-teacher organization. He had to speak in front of everyone at a PTO meeting to ask for funding, and it was unanimously approved.
That was a proud moment for his parents, Christina and Mike Smith.
“Grant has a huge heart, and just being at Emerson around kids with special needs has kind of opened his heart even more,” Christina Smith said. “Our PTO meetings are decently large, so standing in front of a room of adults and asking for money, you just have to be super proud that he would stand up and put himself in front of people like that.”
The bench arrived at the school last spring. Grant and his twin brother, Evan, were called outside to help install it. Their grandfather, Steve Grant, who works for the school corporation, and a friend helped them place it on the playground.
The next step was to let people know about the bench’s purpose, so Kelly had Grant jot down notes to share over the school intercom one morning.
Grant said he was “super nervous” that morning. He read what he wrote down before a thought came to him.
“I said, ‘Would you like it if somebody was lonely, yes or no?’” he said.
The next day at school, he said, people were using the bench for its intended purpose.
“That was mind-changing because I did not think this was going to happen,” Grant said. “It was just an idea.”
Grant’s parents posted a picture of the bench on Facebook, and he said it didn’t take long for it to get several “likes” and nice comments.
“One that sticks out is when one of my dad’s Navy buddies saw it, and they were like, ‘Keep it up. That will help you with leadership,’” Grant said.
Kelly said she appreciates Grant sharing his idea for the Buddy Bench and following through with it.
The Buddy Bench has made it possible for students to indicate they would like to play with others and makes it easy for the other students to know who to include, Kelly said.
“I think many times, students can feel left out at recess time, and other students on the playground have no clue that the student wants to play in the group,” she said.
“Many times, the students just do not know the signs to look for when a child is feeling left out. That is where the Buddy Bench helps. When a student sits on the bench, the other students know they want to be included and will come to the student to ask him or her to join their play.”
Kelly said the bench will impact the school for years to come.
“I hope students will continue to look for ways to include others in their playtime and use the Buddy Bench as a tool to find others that want to be included,” she said.
When students see the bench, Christina Smith said she hopes it reminds them that there’s always somebody that will be your buddy.
“I think before, kids would just walk around by themselves and feel lonely,” she said. “Sometimes, we feel alone, but I think there’s always somebody that’s willing to be our friend. Sometimes, we just have to kind of raise our hand and ask for that.”
Christina Smith said Emerson has made a big impact on both of her children.
“We’ve had such a great experience at Emerson in just the openness and the opportunities for our kids to learn outside of the classroom and learn about friendships and learn about just life in general,” she said.
Grant said his goal is to follow in his father’s footsteps by joining the U.S. Navy. He then wants to own a business to help autistic kids get outdoors so they can learn about nature.
He said he hopes to return to the school years down the road and still see the bench making a difference.
“The biggest part that it will mean to me is when I come back from the Navy to just still see that there and a whole new, different generation of kids there,” he said.