Inspired by a story he read online, Wickliffe second-grader Will Robertson had a big idea: Why not build a couple of "buddy benches" for lonely children on the playground?
"It sounded like a good idea because a lot of people at my school have friends but their friends normally play something they don't like at recess, so they don't really have friends to play with at recess," he said. "I decided to make the buddy benches because they seemed helpful."
Will's mother, Karen Robertson, said she pointed out a Huffington Post article online to her son, about another second-grader, Christian Bucks of York, Pa., and his drive to install buddy benches at his school.
"It obviously resonated with Will, because he took it upon himself to compose a letter of proposal to the principal, Chris Collaros, the next day," she said. "I was convinced of his commitment when he asked his father for a tie to wear to school because he expected to be called for a meeting with Mr. Collaros."
Collaros said he was impressed with the idea.
"I thought, here is a young boy who is embodying everything we hope we help children cultivate at Wickliffe -- a sense of compassion for others, an understanding that each of us is a part of something bigger than ourselves and that we can take action to make a difference," he said.
He said Will was determined to make the idea a reality.
"It was not a fly-by-night idea," Collaros said. "Will became a critical player in helping the class community design and build the benches. He has come to understand in an authentic manner how he can better the world around him."
The colorful buddy benches were painted by Will's combined second- and third-grade classmates with inspiring messages, such as "Be nice" and "You need your friends!" They were installed on the Wickliffe Progressive Elementary School playground.
"The idea is if you see another person on the bench, you can approach them and see if they would like to play or talk," teacher Sarah Giles said. "Our best hope is that this helps children who are feeling left out or lonely."
She said the class took Will's idea and began brainstorming.
"The children made every decision -- type of bench, paint colors, location of benches," she said. "They stated their ideas individually and backed up their ideas with appropriate reasoning. These are the skills I hope to instill in my students."
Giles said it was important to listen to the children and "trust in the process."
The cost of the two benches was $450, supported by the Wickliffe PTO, with miscellaneous painting supplies donated by parents.
"A support group of five parents purchased bare wood and cut, sanded, primed and painted, to present a canvas of boards on which kids could paint their messages," Karen Robertson said. "The kids painted in the hallway of Wickliffe school.
"It was affirming how receptive and supportive the rest of the student body was as they walked by and found out what was being created," she said.
Giles said the class was reading Charlotte's Web as they worked on the buddy benches.
"This was a beautiful extension of what we were discovering about friendship from Charlotte and Wilbur," she said.
Robertson said she and her husband are proud of their son.
"We were and are moved by his compassion and bravery," she said. "These are all very mature concepts and actions for an 8-year-old boy."
Will said painting the benches was the most fun part of the project.
"When I was making the benches, the thing I liked best was painting them," he said. "It was really fun and interesting to see what other kids had drawn."