by Jonathan Weaver
Elderton Elementary students who need a friend at recess now have somewhere to turn if needed — The Friendship Bench.
This Spring, the bench will be placed outside and available for students to make friends rather than potentially-bully one another. The bench is currently in the school lobby.
The bench – built by R.W. McDonald and Sons in Butler out of recycled materials and sponsored by NexTier Bank – was presented at a presentation in November by 15-year-old Florida resident Acacia Woodley.
Woodley – a 10th grade Florida Virtual School student – is interested in marine biology and surfing in her free time, but most enjoys public speaking on behalf of her company, Tiny Girl Big Dream.
The teenager – who lives on the “Space Coast” near the Kennedy Space Center – started the company five years ago after moving to the state of Florida.
“I had never been bullied because of my hands before, but when I moved to this school in Palm Bay, I immediately started to get bullied by this girl. Actually, she was the popular girl in school, so she told people she wouldn’t be friends with them if they were friends with me and a lot of stuff that wasn’t really fun,” Woodley said.
“After awhile of this, I decided to invite her to my house to discuss what was going on and find a solution and discovered she was having a really hard time at home. With that, I realized everybody needed a place to go to talk about what they were going through – it wasn’t just people being bullied that needed help, it was also bullies.”
Woodley – who was born with incomplete arms – said the girls became close friends for a few months before Woodley’s original bully moved away.
There have been more than 500 benches placed at schools, businesses and city centers, and Woodley has spoken on behalf of the project more than 230 times. Acacia was even recognized at Brevard’s County annual Mayor’s Ball, raising enough money to fund nearly two dozen benches. Brevard County now has 56 benches.
In five years of speaking, Acacia has also met and talked with students who were also bullied.
“I have come across some crazy stories from kids – some of them honestly quite sad,” Acacia said. “It’s one of the hardest things (my mom and I) have to deal with when we travel to places.
“For example, I was in Canada – I had spoken to a school in Ontario – and a kid named Thomas – who was eight years old and in the second grade – came up to me after my speech and said ‘I have never thought that I mattered, and that if I was gone, anyone would ever notice if I was missing. So, thank you for showing me that I mattered.’ That was just one of quite-a-few times I’ve heard something like that.
“It makes me realize that I’m doing something good for somebody.”
Elderton Elementary PTA President Paula Byers walked around to fourth, fifth and sixth-grade classrooms with Acacia during her local school visit, and verified the teen nicknamed “Tiny” is indeed doing something good.
“She is very mature for her age, very kind-hearted,” Byers said. “An all-around super nice person, and the same with her mom.”
Byers – mother of fifth-grader Maggie – was also proud of the students who took part during the assembly – the questions they asked, their behavior and appreciation.
Byers has been a member of the PTA for a dozen years – including when daughter Gracie was in school – and said this is the first Friendship Bench in Armstrong School District.
Byers said R.W. McDonald and Sons officials actually brought the idea for the bench to the Butler area after company owners saw Acacia speak in Nashville. Benches are worth about $1,500, but the local PTA did not have to reimburse any funding.
Assistant School Superintendent Dr. Cheryl Soloski is to send information on the benches to all building administrators.
Regional benches are also located at Sugarcreek Elementary, Knoch Middle School (in South Butler County) and Hillview Intermediate School (in the Grove City School District).
Acacia’s last speaking trip in 2016 was a 10-school trip in December in the state of North Dakota. Other cross-country school trips this past fall occurred in the states of Illinois, Kansas, Mississippi and New Hampshire.
Acacia and her mother, Amber, hope to expand the company by writing blogs and selling merchandise to spread her motivational message.