On Wednesday’s last day of school, Bashaw Elementary fifth-graders Elainna Villegas and Joshua Turner learned that despite the boundaries of their relatively small campus on Morgan Johnson Road, they could and did change the world.
No telling what this pair will be saying, doing and changing in middle school.
I think it’s incredible what these kids have done. The fact that they wanted to do something so impactful for both kids with special needs and kids feeling lonely is important because it doesn’t benefit all of them individually.
Samantha Dzembo, Bashaw Elementary School parent
Elainna, 10, and Joshua, 11, are Bashaw’s Fifth Grade Student Council president and vice president, respectively. They and other members of the school’s thoughtful fifth-grade council came up with an idea to help socially shy students on campus by installing the clearly labeled “Buddy Bench,” where students who are feeling lonely can sit when they need friendship.
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Flushed with excitement at their first experiment in social inclusion, Elainna and Joshua and the council reasoned that picnic benches with an opening for a wheelchair could impact the lives of a handful of wheelchair-bound students on campus, including 10-year-old fourth-grader Connor Dzembo, who was diagnosed with the rare progressive disease Ataxia-telangiectasia when he was 3.
“We thought Connor and others could roll up to the picnic bench and not be left out of the group,” Villegas said.
It took six months of planning and fund-raisers, but, on the last day of the school, two “Buddy Benches” and four wheelchair-accessible picnic tables, all made out of recycled plastics and the result of the student council raising more than $4,000, were dedicated during a ceremony attended by the whole school.
“It makes us feel we helped out a lot of people just by doing good deeds,” Joshua said.
The benches and tables just arrived on campus last week.
“It was great,” Villegas said. “We raised all that money and put a lot of effort into it. It was an exciting time for us.”
Connor’s proud father and mother, Nicholas and Samantha Dzembo, attended the ceremony.
“I think it’s incredible what these kids have done,” said Samantha Dzembo. “The fact that they wanted to do something so impactful for both kids with special needs and kids feeling lonely is important, because it doesn’t benefit all of them individually.
“The Buddy Bench and picnic tables are a great idea and hopefully will catch on at every school,” she added.
Joshua Bennett, who has been the principal at the 33-year-old Bashaw Elementary for eight years, said he is delighted that Bashaw students have grasped the importance of social inclusion at an age when bullying can begin.
He’s also happy for Connor, who will enjoy the picnic tables placed on the playground next year.
“Connor is very outgoing and very much a people-person,” Bennett said. “He likes to be around his friends and the school community, so this will allow him to do that.”
The students collected donations a dollar at a time, culminating with a “Freedom” walk around the school. The benches and tables were manufactured out of 100 percent recycled plastic at the Recycled Plastic Factory in Englewood.