11-year-old Sammie Vance says the feeling of being left out is hard to explain. “It’s sad. I don’t feel good. I have butterflies in my stomach because I feel nervous.” In a world where children face a myriad of issues including bullying and loneliness, Sammie, a fifth-grader from Fort Wayne, Indiana, is volunteering to promote kindness and inclusion and is serving as an example of how to be a good friend.
Launching Sammie’s Buddy Bench Project in 2017, Sammie discovered the Buddy Bench after watching a video about the initiative. Designed to eliminate loneliness and foster friendship at school, Buddy Benches are a special place at school where a child can go if they want someone to talk to, promoting the message of kindness on the playground and elsewhere at school.
“It’s nerve wracking to go up to someone and ask them to play,” Sammie says, “because you don’t know what they’re going to say. When you sit on the Buddy Bench it’s easy to notice that someone is sitting on there. When other people know what it’s used for it’s easier because you know that someone is going to come and play with you.”
When Sammie set out to establish a Buddy Bench at her elementary school, Haley Elementary, she asked her classmates and community to collect recycled bottle caps and plastic lids, materials that are used to make the benches. Her community responded overwhelmingly, collecting 1,600-pounds of materials, enough to build three benches. Sammie has since been involved in placing over 100 Buddy Benches at schools in the U.S. and internationally. Sammie’s third-grade teacher at Haley Elementary, Kirsten Grotemat, says her former student was so passionate about her service, she inspired many of her classmates to contribute to the effort.
“Her volunteerism got a lot of kids to get on board because they could bring in five bottle caps and feel like they were a part of something big. Sammie just uplifted kids, she’d tell them how cool it was that they brought caps in. She made them feel so inspired, (her volunteerism) is a piece of what will become history at Haley Elementary, and a piece of what she will probably forever continue to do in her adult life.”
Sammie’s impact has skyrocketed beyond her elementary school, Buddy Benches finding homes on playgrounds at other schools in the U.S. and even internationally, where Sammie has received bottle caps from all over the world and contributed to Buddy Benches at schools in Mexico, India and Germany. According to Sammie, the idea of friendship and kindness has no bounds, extending beyond age, language and cultural differences.
“Bullying and loneliness is a really big deal and it needs to be changed. Even adults need Buddy Benches. Now that a lot of people are aware of it, they’ll want to make a difference. Even as far away as India, people still need friends, and there are still people that feel lonely.”
Empowering other children to serve their communities, Sammie’s Buddy Bench Project allows kids to make just as much of a difference as adults, says Sammie, since collecting bottle caps and plastic lids doesn’t cost money. An added bonus, her eco-friendly project encourages both children and adults to be kind to the environment by recycling. Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, Sammie’s mission to spread kindness has not faltered, advising others via video calls about how they can build their own Buddy Benches and sending encouraging letters to teachers and others to let them know that they are appreciated. Sammie says her work won’t be done until there are Buddy Benches in every school in the world, and everyone has a friend.
“I like seeing joy on kids’ faces and I love spreading kindness. Kindness is contagious. I used to be very, very shy, and the Buddy Bench has shown me how easy it is to make a friend. I’ve received letters from students thanking me, telling me they’ve made a friend (because of the Buddy Bench). There’s a boy younger than me at school and in the hallway he’ll come up to me and give me a thumbs up and thank me for the work being done. That really warms my heart.”
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Sammie Vance? Find local volunteer opportunities.