Buddy Bench to inspire inclusion, empathy

It’s a seemingly simple piece of furniture, but organizers say it has the power to inspire empathy and inclusion – and perhaps even spark a new friendship.

On March 23, Aberfoyle Public School was presented with a “Buddy Bench,” a designated seat in the school where students can sit if they’re looking for a friend to play with or talk to.

Representatives from the Get In Touch For Hutch group came to talk to students and present the bench to the school.

This month at Aberfoyle, students are learning about being inclusive.

School staff hope the bench will encourage students to be more inclusive in an independent way, rather than inclusion being initiated by a teacher.

They also hope the bench will inspire empathy and remind children to be kind to each other, with the end result being no child will have to walk or play by themselves, unless it is by choice.

Get In Touch For Hutch is an organization that works to break down the walls of stigma around mental health and illness. The group raises money through education and awareness events. Funds support various youth mental health organizations that work to build the skills and abilities of youths to improve and support their mental health and well-being.

Get In Touch For Hutch organizer Myrna Hutchison said she was pleased to stand in front of such a colourful group.

“Colour makes me happy so it certainly relieves some of the stress of being up here.”

She explained Get in Touch For Hutch started with a bunch of family and friends who were touched by tragedy in 2013 “when my son Steven took his life while away at university.”

She said, “Losing our son, a brother, a friend and a family member is one of the most difficult things you will ever have to go through in life.”

It was through that very sad time that the Get in Touch For Hutch team was formed.

Hutchison said, “Our hope is that by going to schools and other public events, like this today, to share our story and introduce these projects like the Buddy Bench – we’ll be able to encourage others to feel comfortable talking about their thoughts, emotions and feelings so they don’t have to feel they have to deal with their problems all by themselves.”

Hutchison used an example from the movie Inside Out about a little girl, Riley, moving away from her hometown and friends.

“Sometimes there are things can make us feel sad, or angry, afraid, or disgusted for longer periods of time,” she said.

“If it does, we want you to remember that there will always be someone who wants to help you feel better, someone who cares and who will sit and listen.”

Paula Coffey of the Get In Touch For Hutch group was excited to see the Buddy Bench come to Aberfoyle Public School “… and I am sure the teachers have picked out the perfect spot for it.”

She said on the playground “we hope the bench will generate feelings of friendship.”

Coffey said it is a pretty simple concept of kindness.

She spoke of ongoing community building efforts at Aberfoyle PS and believed the Buddy Bench will help accomplish that.

“It is as simple as sitting down and having a conversion with that person.”

Another goal is to make everyone feel like they are included and make sure no one ever feels alone, Coffey said.

“Having a Buddy Bench is a big responsibility. You have to make sure if someone is sitting on the bench, that you include them.

“Sometimes it’s just letting the person know they matter … sometimes it does not take a lot of words – a smile can go a long way.

“It all starts with you,” Coffey said. “There’s a ripple effect that can change so many people’s outlook on the day.”

Aberfoyle joins a number of schools that have Buddy Benches, including St. John Catholic School in Arthur, Salem Public School  and Minto-Clifford Public School.