Maize students foster friendship, combat bullying with new Buddy Bench

09/01/2014 12:51 PM

09/03/2014 3:06 PM

Sometimes at recess, as in life, you just need a buddy.

Last year, a group of students at Vermillion Elementary School in Maize petitioned their school counselor to form a Buddy Club as a way to reduce bullying and foster friendships.

This year, thanks to a grant from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, the school has a Buddy Bench on one side of its playground, a place where any student feeling lonely, bullied or left out can retreat to find a friend.

“If they’re feeling lonely or maybe they’re new to the school, they can sit on it, and maybe he or she could make new friends,” said third-grader Alexis Gromala, one of the founders of the Buddy Club.

“I heard there was too much bullying going on around the world,” said Eli Blankinship, 8. “So I just decided to start the Buddy Club. And then I was like, ‘Why didn’t I start this earlier?’ ”

Buddy Benches at Vermillion and Pray-Woodman Elementary are the latest addition to the schools’ character education programs, which have received state and national recognition.

Vermillion received a Kansas Honorable Mention Schools of Character award this summer for its Buddy Club and Buddy Bench programs. Last year, Pray-Woodman was named a Promising Practice in Character Education winner by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Character Education Partnership.

Andrea Shipman, school counselor at Vermillion, said the Buddy Bench idea came from the students. Vitor Geromel, a second-grader last year, heard about the concept from his dad, who heard about it online – a group called Christian’s Buddy Bench, at www.buddybench.org.

“This group of kids is pretty amazing,” Shipman said. “They’re the ones who thought of it and brought it to us and really got it going.”

Here’s the way the Buddy Bench works: If someone is feeling lonely or left out during recess, he sits on the bench. Members of the school’s Buddy Club – a self-appointed group of do-gooders – monitor the bench and respond whenever someone sits on it by sitting and talking with the student or inviting him to play.

During classroom presentations at Vermillion last week, Eli, Alexis and Vitor invited classmates to join the Buddy Club by pledging to be nice and not bully. Membership is free, Alexis said, and open to anyone.

“Every class we’ve gone to so far, everybody raises their hand to be in it,” Vitor said.

First-grader Gabriel Doerflinger was one of many who smiled and raised his hand.

“I think the whole world needs this,” he said.

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @suzannetobias.

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