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Maercker School Students Honor Late Classmate with Buddy Bench

Maercker School students collect plastic bottle caps

It all started with a box of plastic caps from the trunk of a retired science teacher’s car. Several months and nearly 500 pounds of plastic caps later, fourth grade Maercker School students are trading those caps for two benches.

At the start of last summer, a woman remarked to fourth grade Maercker School math and science teacher Lynn Gorey, “Oh, you must be a science teacher.” The woman could tell by the items Gorey was buying to organize her classroom and students’ projects.

“Everything you’re using looks like what I used,” the woman said, and Gorey learned she was speaking to a retired science teacher. The two talked some more, and the retired woman told Gorey about a box of plastic caps in the trunk of her car. The woman asked if Gorey did STEM type projects and could find a use for them.

“I just want to give them away. I don’t want to throw them away,” the woman said. Gorey was hesitant to accept the box at first, wondering why she would want what most people would consider garbage. But the Maercker School teacher took them anyway, put them in her garage and forgot about them for the next few months.

When the school year began, Gorey learned that one of her students, Kadalise Brown had cancer. Kadalise would often be out for treatment and return to school weak from it. While the rest of the students would go outside for recess, Kadalise had to sit inside the office, unable to enjoy the nice weather and company of her friends because she couldn’t play outside. Her friends and classmates noticed she was alone and were sad she couldn’t be with them, so they asked Gorey, their teacher, if there was something they could do for Kadalise.

That’s when Gorey remembered the box of plastic caps she stashed in her garage and forgot about. The teacher had heard of “Buddy Benches,” benches that kids sit on if they’re alone, are feeling lonely or sad or don’t have anyone to play with. Once a kid sits on the bench, it’s like a signal. The other children are supposed to notice how the child is alone, prompting others to invite the lone child to come play with them.

She Googled “Buddy Benches” and found a company in Indiana called Green Tree Plastics that works with schools to make Buddy Benches. With 200 pounds of plastic caps and $250, Green Tree Plastics could make one bench, a place for Kadalise to sit outside so she could be with her friends at recess.

Gorey had found a use for those plastic caps.

students collecting caps

In compliance with Green Tree Plastics, the project had to be completely student-run but have a teacher as a mentor. So Gorey presented the idea to her class, who thought it was wonderful. The project involved actual educational lessons in the subjects of their curriculum, including math and science. Starting in October, the students collected the caps, sorted them based on their recycling number (only caps with a 2, 4 or 5 could be used), washed them, weighed them and added the numbers. In addition, the kids used social and emotional lessons, which are written into Maercker School’s curriculum, that teach kids to manage their emotions and social skills.

“It is very important for them to learn those skills,” Gorey said. “So we take time to teach it, which is why I think my girls and boys ― both of them ― felt so compassionate toward Kadalise and so sad that she was sitting in the office alone during lunch. They had that empathy, and that’s something a 9-year-old doesn’t automatically have. I think because we’ve been teaching it in school, they had compassion for her and wanted to do something for her.”

Students with plastic caps

Kadalise lost her battle with cancer in December, which changed the project into a memorial but also gave the project more meaning. Gorey said the project “has been really good therapy” for her students in addition to “a kindness project for their friend.”

After making posters to advertise the cap collection, tracking their progress on a big ladder on the wall, and putting collection boxes around the school, the students have collected about 500 pounds of caps. Gorey didn’t even know if the students would get to 200 pounds when the project began in October. But after ending collection in January, the students have enough for two benches to honor their late friend and classmate. And with money from a grant Gorey won over the summer, all costs are covered.

“Something that could have been very sad and depressing for the rest of the year, they’ve really turned it into something positive,” Gorey said. “We decided we couldn’t pretend that this didn’t happen. We need to talk. Her chair in the room is empty. Her bucket is still in the room. The class picture that came with all the kids’ little pictures on it, her picture is on it. We don’t want to forget her, and we don’t want to ignore it, because some of my kids are still processing some feelings about this, so we want to let them talk about it. And this bench has been a really good thing for them to do.”

Gorey was able to visit Kadalise before she passed and asked for her favorite colors so they knew what colors to make the benches. Now one blue and one red bench will be made in addition to a plaque that says “In memory of our friend, Kadalise Brown.”

Kadalise Brown

“The kids in my class who were really good friends [with Kadalise] are going to have a place to come and feel close to her,” Gorey said. “They’re going to have something that they’re leaving in her memory, and they know that this was all coordinated by them.”

Thanks to a fellow teacher who has a friend working with a trucking company, the Buddy Benches will travel from Evansville, Indiana, to their new home in Westmont later this school year. The students are helping organize an assembly that will take place in April or May where the benches will be dedicated to Kadalise and given to the school.

“The bench, even though we started it for their friend Kadalise, it now is not just for Kadalise,” Gorey said. “It’s for any kids now or in the future who may be in that same situation where they would have to be in the office instead of at recess.”

Students who are disabled, dealing with an illness, or have a broken bone can use the bench so they don’t have to be alone in the office and miss out on being with their friends. 

“My kids are looking at the future of ‘How many kids down the road get to use these benches?’” Gorey said. “And it’s a good thing that they feel like they’re leaving behind something for the school. My kids are in fourth grade. They’ll be here for fifth grade, and then they’ll go to the middle school. So in a couple years, they won’t be here, but they know they’re leaving a legacy.”