Most would agree the world needs a little more kindness. And, maybe that kindness should start on the elementary school playground.
In the fall of 2017, Jada Gibson, now a sixth grade student at Dalton Middle School, wanted to create a way to combat the problem of loneliness on the playground at Westwood. Thus began a year-long collaboration with Dalton High School engineering students to spread kindness through the installation of "buddy benches."
Gibson explained that she and her friends noticed a classmate who spent recess alone and they wanted to reach out to her so she would have a friend. "I felt bad because we don't know what she's going through at home," said Gibson. "If you feel like school is your only safe place and you're feeling alone there, you can sit on the bench and that's a clue for others that you may need a friend to sit with you."
Gibson heard of the buddy bench idea being done at other schools and knew the concept could work in her own school, as well. Westwood's school counselor, Stephanie Redding, had been talking with Challenge teacher Martha Thomason about activities for World Kindness Week. The request to build buddy benches fit seamlessly with those activities, as Thomason had recently discussed collaborating with the Dalton High School engineering teacher, Jessica Ashlock.
In November 2017, all Westwood students participated in activities for World Kindness Week, selling "kindness" buttons to raise money for the buddy benches. In April, DHS engineering students visited Westwood to meet with fifth grade leaders for the first session of brainstorming and design thinking.
DHS senior Abel Albor said nothing was off the table in the first step of the process. "They had a lot of bright ideas, and they're probably all a little smarter than us," he laughed. "They reminded me a lot of us when we were younger and all the imagination we had in elementary school. We talked about having TVs and computers on the benches.Their imaginations were just fun to watch, and I think we should all have more of that."
Alexia Gonzalez, now a sixth grade student, said that after the initial meeting, the Westwood students continued working on and designing the project during their lunch period.
"We would research designs of buddy benches from other schools and quotes about spreading kindness," she said. "We envisioned the benches to be whatever we wanted at first, like kind of crazy with a recliner, seat warmers, baskets for balls or umbrellas, but then we realized that wasn't feasible for this project, so we narrowed it down to things that would be soothing for school but that could also stand out around the playground."
The fifth grade students took their finished designs to the engineering room at the high school in May, divided into teams and got to work alongside their high school counterparts.
"I think it was fun to work with the high school students because we got to experience something that we hadn't before. We got to share our ideas and hear their ideas, so it was different to work with someone more talented, older and smarter," said current sixth grade student Henley Hill. "They taught me new things about how to use the tools, sketch out the 3D plans on graph paper, line things up and take measurements and stay safe."
When the benches were complete, Gonzalez and her dad, Alex, took them home to paint the base coats over the summer. In fall of 2018, the former fifth grade students gathered to help Westwood teacher Lane Raber paint the chosen designs and inspirational quotes on the benches, such as "If you can be anything, be kind." Mr. Gonzalez once again took the benches home to apply polyurethane as a top coat.
By late fall 2018, the benches were finally placed on Westwood's playground for the students to enjoy.
Sixth grade student Allee Phillps said her favorite of the four benches is the blue one with the handprints of everyone who contributed, as well as a few Westwood kindergarten students. "I have never built something like that from scratch, so it was cool to see all the pieces come together," she said. "The buddy benches were such a good idea because it's good for everyone to have their own friend. Some people who are feeling lonely may think they're the only ones like that, so it's good to have someone they can go to that makes them feel better."
Albor added that he and his friends enjoyed getting to connect with the younger students. "It was a group effort – we did the building, and they were creative enough to come up with these beautiful benches, and I think they came out pretty good," he said.
"I think it's important to find a group of friends to feel comfortable around because that's what gets you through life – you might be having a hard day, but your friends will be there to cheer you on. This project was amazing because it kind of makes that bridge so that kids connect with each other more, and it gives them more chances to go up to each other and talk to find that group of friends they can count on."
Thomason said to see one student's desire to help others turn into a collaborative project that involved students from two schools, parents, teachers and the community was incredibly rewarding. "I hope we can do more of these in the future. Finding times that worked for both schools and getting former students back to Westwood led to a much longer timeframe than we had hoped, but the end result is amazing," she said. "We hope the benches will help foster kindness and empathy among our students as they reach out to each other."
Special thanks to the following individuals for helping bring the project to fruition:
Alex Gonzalez, parent, for working on the benches at home
Jessica Ashlock, DHS engineering teacher
Martha Thomason, Westwood Challenge teacher
Stephanie Redding, Westwood counselor
Lane Raber, Westwood teacher
(Former) Westwood Students: Jada Gibson, Henley Hill, Karyme Cervantes, Lucy Tatum, Tanya De La Cruz, Amir Garcia, Evelyn Isaola, Jose Moreno, Allee Phillips, Shamus Criswell, Valeria Garcia, Alexia Gonzalez, Nelson Lira and Michael Harbin
DHS Students: Jasmine Alanis, Abel Albor Villafuerte, Anthony Calderon, Emylynda Estrada, David Fraire, Edgar Galdamez, Miguel Garcia, Drew Greeson, Omar Hernandez, Phillip Le, Brian Medina, Fernando Moreno, Aaron Oceguera, Giovanni Quezada, Axel Rendon, Manuel Trejo and Jaxon Wells