When Cathy Rector was preparing to assume the role of president of Champaign West Rotary, she discovered a project conducted by a fellow club in Indiana that seemed appealing.
It sprouted from an idea that has grown in recent years: Placing a “buddy bench” on the playground of local elementary schools. Some, like Bottenfield Elementary in Champaign, already had one. The buddy bench works like this: A student feeling lonely, downcast, upset or otherwise in need of company just has to take a seat on the bench. That sends an obvious, non-verbal clue to others that this student needs help, and it usually arrives swiftly.
So Rector’s club applied for and received a Rotary district grant.
“These buddy benches are to help eliminate loneliness, and they promote friendship on the playground,” Rector said. “For me it’s a positive message for inclusiveness and kindness.”
Consulting with Champaign Unit 4 officials, it was determined that benches would be installed at seven schools that didn’t have one – Dr. Howard, Garden Hills, Kenwood, Robeson, Southside, Stratton and Booker T. Washington – along with a school, Bottenfield, that sought another one.
To get students involved, Rotary asked them to help in the collection of 200 pounds of plastic caps, such as the kind you find on plastic soda bottles, that would be recycled into the material that it used to produce the benches.
“We wanted them to do it because we wanted them to see it as a personal investment,” Rector said.
Green Tree Plastics in Evansville, Ind., will produce the benches, which will come in various colors. They will be installed, along with a plaque, during a ceremony at each elementary in May. (Dr. Howard will receive its bench in the fall because of its ongoing construction project.)
The collection period ends Friday, March 15, and to say it has been a success would be an understatement. Rector said they have more than enough caps.
“We’ve collected a ton,” she said. “It’s crazy. We’ve got so many.”
And it might not be the end. Rector said local private schools have reached out to her about the possibility of obtaining buddy benches for their schools.
“I think next year we may continue this project so that we can actually get them in all of our schools in this area,” she said, noting that she’d be happy to help connect parents in other areas with Rotary members in their towns to get buddy bench projects in motion. (Reach her via email.)