Take a seat, make a friend
Two yellow benches stand brightly in the playground at Reed Point Elementary School. Both are dotted with colorful handprints and marked with the words “Buddy Bench.”
They’re more than just places to rest one’s feet: Buddy Benches are a safe haven for youngsters to connect with playmates without judgment. Lonely kids simply take a seat, thereby signaling others that they need a friend. Students are then free to approach the sitter and invite them to play.
It’s a simple idea with larger implications, most especially in relation to bullying. Instead of telling kids “Don’t bully,” Buddy Benches say “Do be kind.” It is this message that Reed Point High School freshman Jocelyn Ott wanted to spread.
The Buddy Benches came to be through Ott’s work in the Reed Point chapter of FCCLA — Family Career and Community Leaders of America. It’s an organization that empowers young people to be productive members of society and to take a stand against social issues, like bullying.
Ott chose to bring Buddy Benches to Reed Point as part of her FCCLA Student Taking Action with Recognition (STAR) Event project.
IN THE BEGINNING
Ott first learned of Buddy Benches when she noticed a photo of one hanging in Chick Brogan’s Family and Consumer Sciences classroom. And that was it: She had her project idea.
“I knew some of the little kids had trouble finding someone to play with. When I was in grade school, a lot of kids did also,” Ott said.
“They don’t really know or want to walk up to someone (and say) can I play with you? Because they’re afraid to get rejected,” she added.
With an idea in mind, Ott hatched a plan. The benches were the easy part – they were already in place. They just needed a makeover.
The Reed Point High School Booster Club donated the money for the paint and Ott enlisted the help of grade school students for the handprints. Students in pre-K through second grade printed one bench, while third- and fourth-graders claimed another. A bus driver also donated boards to extend the backs of the benches, to hold the phrase “Buddy Bench.”
Perhaps more important than the benches themselves were the speeches Ott presented to grade school and high school students. She talked about bullying: what it was, who was involved and what needed to change. Ott said the fifth- and sixth-graders were her key demographic: Best to stop bullying at the onset, before it made its way into the high school, where students were increasingly vulnerable as they dealt with self-discovery.
The younger students all took a Buddy Bench pledge, affirming that if they saw a student on the bench, they’d invite them to play. Ott even taught them a song – a Buddy Bench version of the classic “If You’re Happy and You Know it Clap Your Hands.”
Brogan said the benches, though not widely used, are a success.
“The teachers seem to think it’s working,” Brogan said. “Rather than just being left out, they can send a signal.”
Principal and Superintendent Mike Ehinger echoed her sentiments, noting that the benches are a great way for kids to let others know they need help, without making a big deal out of it.
The benches, and Ott’s speeches, are about altering the conversation surrounding bullying: Changing the focus from prevention to victim empowerment.
Brogan said the anti-bullying angle hasn’t been successful.
“The only people that bully are the bullies that don’t care what the rules are,” Brogan said, which makes them less likely to listen to someone telling them not to bully.
Ott’s project research found that more than two-thirds of students are bullied at home, and the top cause of teen suicide attempts was feeling insignificant in the home and family.
“So we’re thinking coping skills: What to do if this happens. How to build your self esteem. How not to take the blame for things you know you’re not to blame for. All of those things kind of got circled into her project,” Brogan said. “If this kid is being bullied, what happens when 10 other kids come and stand beside him? Now you’ve got power.”
Ott’s Buddy Benches have gained recognition beyond the community of Reed Point. She presented her project at the FCCLA state STAR Event contest in March and finished second – securing her place in the national competition.
She’s made it to nationals twice before – exemplifying her commitment to FCCLA. But the rewards don’t come from trophies. She’s most proud of her interactions with the students. She not only educated them about the project, she involved them in it.
The prints that cover the benches are their hands, and hopefully those same hands will be used to lift each other up – not push each other down.