Sammie Vance, 14, knows there’s nothing worse than feeling left out. For years, she’s been helping kids who feel lonely make friends. “There was one little boy at school, younger than me,” she told TIME for Kids. “He would see me in the hallway and give me a thumbs-up, to tell me that what I was doing helped him.”
What she was doing was running the Buddy Bench program. She started it when she was in the third grade, in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The idea was that anyone at school who was feeling lonely could sit on the “buddy bench.” That let other kids know someone needed a friend. “It’s really helpful to have other people be able to notice you,” Sammie says.
The idea quickly caught on. The bench brought kids together. Since then, Sammie has helped communities all over the country set up buddy benches. “It means a lot to me,” she says, “that this is making a difference in people’s lives.”
Building A Bench
Sammie got the idea for the Buddy Bench program at summer camp in 2017. She thought it would be cool to have a buddy bench in her school, so when she got home, she presented the idea to her principal, her teachers, and her parents.
Getting approval for the project was just the first step. “There have been a lot of small challenges, like money,” Sammie says.
To reduce costs and be eco-friendly, Sammie decided to make the bench out of recycled material. So she rallied her community to gather bottle caps.
Word of the project got out, and soon Sammie was getting caps from people in all 50 states. She even got them from people in Germany, the Netherlands, and other countries. In the end, she collected more than 1,200 pounds of bottle caps. A company called GreenTree Plastics was able to upcycle these into three benches.
Sammie says the effort has helped her overcome personal challenges. “I used to be really, really shy,” she says. “I’m definitely more outgoing now.” She has also learned to acknowledge her limits, and to take breaks when working on a big project.
In addition to all the kids her project has helped, Sammie is grateful for how it has changed her. “It just helped me grow in so many different aspects of my life,” she says.
Making a Difference
Before long, Sammie was helping other schools acquire benches. She has donated more than 200 benches to schools and parks all around the country, and in Mexico and Australia. Her work continues to spread kindness far and wide. “We recently got a bench in Ghana, Africa,” she says. “That was cool.”
What Sammie’s work shows is that helping people in your community can start at any age. “You don’t have to be an adult to make a difference,” she says.
Even small acts of kindness can be powerful. “It can make someone’s day and lead to a chain reaction,” she says. “You never know. Just be kind, in general.”
Next month, we’ll feature kids who are fighting food insecurity. Could you be one of them? Click here for ideas on how you can ease hunger in your community.