By Gabby Landsverk, Staff Writer
“Have you ever been lonely at recess?” asked a chorus of fourth-graders Melisse Kowalzek, Beth Ahlin, Coda Brastad and Cooper Robbins at the opening ceremony of an innovative new feature at Lindbergh Elementary. “Don’t worry, we have an idea!”
Lindbergh’s new idea, presented at a school-wide ceremony May 8, is the “Buddy Bench,” a decorative outdoor seat designed to help kids make friends and build community.
The Buddy Bench concept is a nationwide movement started by a first-grader from Roundtown Elementary in Pennsylvania, who was concerned about children feeling left out on the playground if they didn’t have someone to play with.
The bench is intended to foster new friendships by encouraging kids to invite anyone sitting alone on the bench to join in activities, and creating opportunities for kids to make a new friend with whomever they find sitting next to them on the bench.
The idea went viral in 2013. Since then, new Buddy Benches have sprung up across the nation and even worldwide, from California to Pennsylvania, Nova Scotia, Mexico and Thailand, to name just a few recent adopters of the trend.
Lindbergh’s Buddy Bench, however, is extra special.
The bench is dedicated to veteran educator Sandy Morse, who taught first grade in Little Falls for more than 33 years before her retirement in 1999.
Sandy passed away in December 2014 after complications from ovarian cancer.
“Sandy loved being a teacher and working with students … she would have loved the idea of a Buddy Bench,” said Lindbergh Principal Jill Griffith-McRaith.
The Buddy Bench project had been in the works since the start of the school year.
When Sandy’s family donated a memorial fund to Lindbergh in her name, using the money for friendship-facilitating furniture seemed an obvious choice.
“My gosh, it just makes sense to dedicate it to Sandy,” said Lindbergh Mental Health Behaviorist Colleen Johnson.
Lindbergh staff who worked with Sandy agreed that the bench was a great symbol of her work with kids with special needs, or who otherwise were left out most social circles.
“Sandy was a real champion for all kids, especially those who might not have a friend to play with,” Griffith-McRaith said.
Sandy’s son Charlie Morse agreed the bench was a wonderful way for the family to give back to the school that Sandy loved.
“It’s a great representation of her dedication to giving to others. She was always looking out for her students, friends, family and colleagues,” Charlie said.
He added that he is impressed by just how many people have fond memories of Sandy from being in her first grade class, even if that was many years ago.
“People always came back to see her and still talk about her because she had such an impact on their lives,” Charlie said.Lindbergh’s Buddy Bench was decorated with a unique design created by third grade student Brenna Schultz, who was chosen as the school’s top pick from a pool of other student-submitted options.
A plaque bearing Morse’s name was donated by Melgram Jewelers and Froggy’s donated its services in painting and applying decals to the bench.
Charlie and the rest of the family, including Sandy’s husband Bill, were the first to sit on the bench after unveiling it to a delighted crowd of Lindbergh students.
“It was a great celebration. I think it’s going to make a difference now and in the future,” Griffith-McRaith said.
The goal of the project is to “stop loneliness and bring friendship, so all kids feel like they belong,” according to Kowalzek, Ahlin, Brastad and Robbins, with the motto, “Never fear, the Buddy Bench is here!”
“I hope we can use the bench to help one another the way Sandy would have wanted us to,” Griffith-McRaith said.