(Clockwise from top left) Ava McConkey, Brennan Lovitt, Demetre Cherras, Austin Bryant, Maya Mills, Cody Saba, Tala Moussa and Theron Lashley, students at Harry Hooge elementary, sit on the friendship bench donated to the school by Dave Sheppard of Haney Sewing and Sound.                                (Contributed)

(Clockwise from top left) Ava McConkey, Brennan Lovitt, Demetre Cherras, Austin Bryant, Maya Mills, Cody Saba, Tala Moussa and Theron Lashley, students at Harry Hooge elementary, sit on the friendship bench donated to the school by Dave Sheppard of Haney Sewing and Sound. (Contributed)

Friendship benches donated to two Maple Ridge schools

Benches promote empathy, friendship and self esteem at school

Two rainbow coloured benches will not only brighten the halls of two schools in Maple Ridge this year, but also serve as a space for students reaching out for help.

Dave Sheppard of Haney Sewing and Sound recently donated the multi- colored, double Adirondack benches, made of 100 per cent recycled plastic, to Laity View and Harry Hooge elementary schools after meeting the girl behind the idea at a trade show in the United States last year.

Acacia Woodly came up with the idea for the colourful friendship bench after she was bullied by a student at a school in Florida. The Grade 5 student learned that her bully was telling students that if they were friends with Woodly, then they couldn’t be friends with them.

“Which worked because she was popular,” Woodly said in a promotional video for the benches.

Instead of becoming isolated from her peers, Woodly invited her bully over to her house to talk. What she discovered was this bully was going through their own struggles at home.

“I thought if the bullies need friends and the bullied need friends, why not create a place where they can both go and talk it through and not feel like they could take their pain out on others,” said the now 15-year-old Woodly.

In 2012, Woodly founded the mission-based for-profit company Tiny Girl, Big Dream with the goal of placing friendship kits into every school across the U.S. and Canada.

Not only did Woodly come up with the idea for the bench, she also came up with the friendship report, where students write down great things they see happening at their schools to give recognition to the people who do good deeds. And also the friendship bracelet, a rainbow coloured bracelet engraved with the words ‘I am amazing’ for students to look at when they are feeling down about themselves.

These items are packaged in a kit along with a set of oil-based paint markers and instructions for writing words of character and kindness on the bench and a custom engraving of a company logo, quote or dedication. The benches are durable, weatherproof and easily cleaned with a mild soap and water.

And the benches are heavy.

“When we were carrying it in it felt heavier with every step,” Sheppard said about delivering one of the benches to the school.

Sheppard talked with school councillor Karen Boileau at Harry Hooge elementary, where they were interested in a bench, and councillor, Shona Wood at Laity View elementary, where one of his children still attends.

“It is going to be a wonderful addition,” Wood said about the bench.

“It will be on the primary playground. I think it will encourage empathy, friendship, self-esteem, all these things we want to teach our children,” she said.

“If they need a little quite time or they feel lonely or upset and if somebody else notices that they are there and we want them to notice then that’s an invitation to receive some help and some support,” she said.

“A councillor’s number one goal is to facilitate healthy relationships, so the friendship bench nicely supports that goal,” explained Boileau.

If students are walking alone, people will question if they want to be alone, walking somewhere to go to be with a friend, or actually lonely.

Boileau said this way there is no question, the person sitting on the bench is looking for somebody.

“I think it’s nice because it’s not only a way for somebody who is lonely to signal that they are lonely, but it’s a cool opportunity for kids to have an opportunity to be empathetic,” said Boileau adding that children are not born understanding empathy, it is a trait that needs to be developed.