Aden Sturgeon, who is finishing second grade at Rochester’s Hugger Elementary School this week, has been that kid.
You know the one: He or she is alone, looking sad and isolated, hanging back.
Aden, now 8, is a normally gregarious child who moved across the country with his family when he entered Hugger a couple of years ago and had to leave his friends behind. He has adjusted to the move and made friends, but walking into a strange new school gave him empathy for kids who don’t integrate as quickly or find themselves left out.
So when dad Kenny called him into the bed where the family of three shares breakfast and stories every morning to start their days and showed him an article in his news feed about Pennsylvania first-grader Christian Bucks’ idea for a Buddy Bench, Aden knew what he needed to do.
“When we moved up here from Florida last year, he was kind of sad and had some trouble," his mom, Jan, said. "He said, ‘If only we had a Buddy Bench, wouldn’t that have been great for everyone who comes to this school?”
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“I thought it was a great idea, because when I was in first grade and just moved here, I was lonely and wanted a friend,” Aden said. “It’s an easier way for kids to make friends.”
The idea is that children who feel left out can sit on the bench, a signal to their peers that they need some camaraderie.
Aden, who was 7 at the time, pushed the project with a determination that defies his tender age, his mom, Jan, said. He asked his dad to forward the email to his teacher, to his principal and finally to a school secretary who is the key to getting things done.
“This kid’s got more assertion and self-confidence than I ever had, I can tell you that,” Jan Sturgeon said, parental pride oozing in her voice.
The idea eventually reached Marnie Adams, a third-grade teacher at Hugger and adviser to the P.A.C.K. (Peers Assisting with Caring and Kindness) group. One of the group's goals is to build community, so students were" a natural group to help support our little guy,” Adams said.
“Sometimes the kids come up with the greatest ideas.” she said. “At any elementary school, there’s always that concern when a best friend is sick or a student is new to a school.”
Adams and the P.A.C.K. group helped Aden develop the idea, but kept him as “the captain of the ship.”
‘Poised and Eloquent’
Among the young captain’s responsibilities were making a pitch to the PTA for a grant to pay for the benches, which cost a little more than $1,400 for the pair, and talking to his peers about the project over the public address system during daily announcements.
Aden admitted to being nervous about making the presentation to a group of adults at the PTA meeting, but Adams said his anxiety didn’t show.
“He was very poised,” she said. “He knew what he wanted to say, and he was eloquent about speaking about it.
“It’s very special,” she continued. “He had his parents’ support, and he came to our PTA and presented his idea, which was awesome.”
The teacher said working with Aden was a valuable experience for the older students in PACK, which helps members develop leadership skills.
“Their enthusiasm was sky high and it ran from there,” she said.
Though reimbursing the PTA wasn’t a condition of the grants, the P.A.C.K. group organized bake sales, wristband sales and other fundraising events. They raised $450 to offset the costs of the the two new benches on the Hugger school grounds.
“I told Aden and P.A.C.K. that they’ve created a legacy for Hugger,” Adams said.
Everyone Wanted In On Action
Aden and P.A.C.K. wanted to involve as many students as possible, so a contest was held for designs that would be added to the benches when they arrived. More than 130 designs were submitted, and two random drawings were made – one from entries from kindergartners through second graders, and the other from the third through fifth grade entries.
The Buddy Bench project eventually became a school-wide effort. Jan Sturgeon said at a recent field day for Hugger Elementary kids and their families, “three mothers came up and were raving about how their kids were talking about it at home.”
The 8-year-old’s parents are “beyond proud,” Jan Sturgeon said.
Aden, a typical kid who likes playing video games, soccer and football and dreams of being a video designer when he grows up, seems to take it in stride.
He says he’s looking forward to school resuming next fall, when he can befriend students who find themselves alone on one of his school’s Buddy Benches.
- What else can be done to help all students feel included and reduce isolation?