By Joyce Coronel
There’s nothing quite as lonesome as being the kid at school who has no one to play with.
Waggoner Elementary, a Kyrene school in South Tempe, has been encouraging its students to act with kindness and reach out in friendship, especially to those who might feel a bit lonely or unwelcome.
The school recently unveiled its “Buddy Benches” as part of an effort to instill the values of kindness and compassion.
It’s all part of a program launched in partnership with the Anti-Defamation League. ADL’s goal is to help schools develop strategies to prevent bullying and build more welcoming communities.
Waggoner Principal Lisa Gibson said the school was designated by ADL as a “No Place for Hate” school last year.
“We committed to doing three or more activities during the school year to promote kindness, friendship and compassion with kids,” Gibson said. “This year we decided to continue our journey to hopefully become a ‘No Place for Hate’ school again. We find out in May.”
The entire school read “The Sandwich Swap” this year as part of its kindness-building program. The PTO purchased a copy for each teacher to read to their respective students.
The story, in summary, explores the lives of best friends who like jumping rope, drawing pictures, playing on the swings together and trying each other’s lunches. After discovering they have zero familiarity with the differing foods, they help organize a picnic so everyone at school can try one another’s food and learn about the other’s culture.
“We talked to kids about how to be compassionate, how to accept differences, how to be kind to one another,” Gibson said. “We wanted to continue something throughout the year instead of just a week, and the Buddy Benches did that for us.”
A school assembly to showcase the bright blue benches brought out Kyrene Superintendent Dr. Jan Vessely as well as Mayor Tempe Mark Mitchell.
Waggoner will have one bench installed on the primary-grades playground and the other on the intermediates’ playground.
Cara Meaker, who serves on the PTO board of trustees, was there for the Buddy Benches ceremony. Her daughter, Ella, is a second-grader at the school.
“We are so excited about the Buddy Benches,” Meaker said. “We have been focusing at Waggoner for the last number of years on kindness.”
So what exactly is a Buddy Bench?
“When a child goes out to the playground and is feeling lonely or sad—or perhaps their friend is not at school that day—they can sit down on the Buddy Bench,” Meaker said. That’s the signal for other kids to come over, sit down, talk with the student and invite them to play.
“It gives kids a way to express those feelings without having to put words to them. It’s hard to initiate sometimes,” Meaker said.
“You sit on the bench and somebody walks up to you and says, ‘Come play with me.’ It’s so much easier. And the kids are very excited about it—I think they understand the concept of it.”
The PTO purchased both Buddy Benches and the city will install them.
“Thanks to Waggoner teacher Mary Brown and our PTO working together with the city of Tempe, we now have a wonderful addition to our playground that spreads the ongoing message of inclusion and kindness that our school believes in wholeheartedly,” Gibson said.