Jeff Heuchert, email@example.com
Acacia Woodley knows better than most young people what it’s like to be bullied, ignored or left out. Born without a hand on her right arm and only two fingers on her left, she’s had to endure her share of hurtful comments and stares.
But the 12-year-old from Florida isn’t your typical girl. Though small in stature, she’s big at heart.
“Each one of you is special and unique,” Woodley told students at Hamlet Public school Monday afternoon after leading them through an exercise to highlight and celebrate their many differences. “Each one of you is great at something. Whatever it is, it’s your gift to share.”
She said it was “awesome” to be in Stratford and thanked the school for being a part of her bigger dream to spread kindness and end bullying in schools across the United States and Canada. To do that, she and her family started a non-profit organization called Tiny Girl, Big Dream, which helps provide schools with a friendship bench to paint with quotes about friendship and words of encouragement and positive character traits.
“Let it be something that brings you all together,” Woodley said about the bench, which is a part of a friendship kit that also comes with friendship reports so that students can recognize acts of kindness and a plastic wristband for each child that says, “I am amazing.”
While Monday’s stop in Stratford may have been Woodley’s first trip north of the border, she’s certainly no stranger. The benches which serve at the focal point of her efforts are purchased from CR Plastic Products in Stratford. Woodley came across the company when searching online for a cost-effective option. She also liked that they are made from 100 per cent recycled products and are durable.
After taking a phone call from Woodley in 2012, CR Plastic Products VP of finance, Bruce Ballantyne, said the company “jumped on board right away,” and since then has manufactured and shipped 35 benches.
Before stopping at Hamlet, Woodley and her family got to tour CR Plastic’s Romeo Street facility. There she was surprised with a nearly three-metre-high bench weighing almost 700 kilograms. The hard-to-miss piece will be used by the company to spread awareness about Woodley and her initiative.
“I was blown away (by the bench),” Woodley said afterwards with a big smile. “How did they do that?”
Later in the day Woodley helped deliver two friendship benches at Avon Public school, and later in the week benches are being dropped off at almost all elementary schools in the city and the YMCA. Those benches were made possible through funding from the Rotary Club of Stratfford.
The bench at Hamlet, which was painted by Larry Parsons and contains the Avon Maitland District School Board’s character traits, including respect, empathy, compassion, and responsibility, also serves as a parting gift from the school’s longtime office administrator, Kathy Baker, whose office was often a source of comfort and compassion for students throughout her 26 years there.
Rather than a traditional retirement gift, Baker asked for donations for a bench. She wanted one that was bright and bold, and that represented her feelings about the school community. While each board of the bench is different, together they blend to create something beautiful, she said.
“I want the kids to know this is a safe place to be,” she added.
Just like Baker, the bench “had to be special,” teacher Macey Ernest said, noting Baker not only greeted everyone with a smile, but her door was always open for anyone who needed to talk or a hug.
“She took the time to go above and beyond,” she added.