A student tries out one of the new buddy benches that were recently installed at Sherwood Park’s Lakeland Ridge School.
Kellie Smith was a steadfast believer in children’s leadership potential. Although the Grade 3 teacher lost a lengthy battle with cancer in March, her core belief will live on in the form of two “buddy benches” that have been dedicated in her honour at Sherwood Park’s Lakeland Ridge School, where Smith had taught since 2004.
“Kellie was always online researching and had a million ideas on how she could make things better,” said assistant principal Melissa Kerr. “The things she did were always rooted in her belief that kids can be leaders and can help other kids.”
Smith’s colleagues and students describe her as fully committed to everything she put her mind to. She was known for working long hours planning school-wide activities, collaborating with teachers and finding ways to involve her students.
“For Kellie, it wasn’t acceptable to have kids walking around without friends,” Kerr said. “She believed strongly that we are a school community and that everyone should feel welcome, safe and have fun. If we are teaching these skills at school, we need to be providing an outlet for kids to put them into practice and make sure everyone is included.”
Smith played a major role in bringing in and executing the school’s Leader in Me program. Based on the popular book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the program helps schools develop a culture of leadership, responsibility and teamwork.
“It’s integrated in everything we do here and really fosters creating great citizens,” Kerr said. “If you walk through the hallways you’ll see quotes posted up and bulletin boards by different classrooms that explore these ideas ... Those wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Kellie and her passion.”
Last school year, as Irene Deatcher’s Grade 3 students were thinking of ways they could be leaders at school, they came up with the idea of installing buddy benches in the playground. The proposed benches would have a plaque mounted on them that say, “When you are lonely, please sit on this bench as a signal to others that you want to play.”
“My students saw friends being sad on the playground and wanted to do something. Leader in Me and Kellie Smith’s influence played a big part in that. The kids wanted to be leaders,” said Deatcher.
When Smith died, people were looking for a way to remember her and the bench program felt like the perfect tribute, Deatcher said. Smith’s husband asked that all contributions to her memory be donated to the buddy bench initiative. More than $6,000 was raised, enough to install two benches along with two Canadian maple trees.
Deatcher’s research revealed that the buddy bench concept was brought to North America by an American student who saw pictures of them in Germany while researching online. Since then the idea has swept through North America with many buddy benches appearing throughout Alberta, including the Medicine Hat area, Edmonton, Calgary, St. Albert and Strathcona County.
At Lakeland Ridge School, the students who initiated the buddy bench program are now in Grade 4 and are in charge of monitoring the benches and approaching any student who sits on one.
“These students are taught to get those kids to play, talk or engage them in something,” Kerr said. “The kids taking leadership in this have developed a huge sense of pride and responsibility in helping others and the kids who sit on the bench feel like someone cares about them.”
The buddy bench monitors at Lakeland Ridge wear bright orange vests at recess, another tribute to Smith, who loved orange and was a fan of the Winnie the Pooh character Tigger. Like Tigger, she had a bounce in her step in everything that she did.
“She was full of energy, bright and cheery,” said Kerr. “If she had a great idea and it seemed like it wasn’t going to work out, she would rethink it, regroup and find a way to make it happen. She was a symbol of perseverance and a go-getter in all aspects of her life. Kellie was a ray of sunshine.” ❚