Despite the fact that Olivia Feldman sings and acts in front of more than 200 people through her involvement with Desert Stages Theatre, her onstage confidence was not transferring to her time at school.
As a third-grader, Olivia was feeling shy and uncomfortable when it came to finding friends to play with during recess at Pardes Jewish Day School in Scottsdale.
She remembered a story she heard when she was 5. Olivia’s mother told her about a young boy who created a Buddy Bench. The bench was a place for children to sit when they were needing a friend. Other children were encouraged to approach any child sitting on the bench to ask if they would like to play.
The story stuck with Olivia, who decided to put her own spin on the Buddy Bench. The Mensch Bench was born.
“A little while ago, I was beginning to feel lonely at school,” says Olivia, who is now in fourth grade. “My director at Desert Stages Theatre, Lisa Barton, always tells us that everyone should feel included. She helped to build up my confidence, so when I went back to school, I decided to make the Mensch Bench so that all of my classmates felt included at school as well.”
Olivia and her mother approached the school’s headmaster, who was immediately on board. The Feldman family purchased the bench, and all the students from the school were invited to help decorate it together. After it was painted, each of the children put a thumbprint on the Mensch Bench.
In March, the bench was placed on a shady, grassy spot near the playground. After a morning prayer session, Olivia announced it was open for everyone to use.
“A lot of people have been using the Mensch Bench since we put it in place,” says Olivia, whose family volunteers with Families Giving Back. “A few of the kids have said they like that it is so colorful, because it feels warm and welcoming to them. Just recently, I saw a girl sitting on the Mensch Bench, and another girl came up to her and asked if she wanted to play. Then, even more girls joined those two, and it turned into a big group of girls who were all playing with each other!”
The Buddy Bench idea has been catching on at schools across the globe. According to Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, at least 1,000 elementary schools on six continents have installed Buddy Benches on their playgrounds.
“Olivia’s hope is that the Mensch Bench will help kids reach out to others who may feel lonely, like she once did, for many years to come,” says Stacey Feldman, Olivia’s mother. “We are grateful for family, friends, the wonderful teachers Olivia has had, the supportive counselors, the directors and friends she has at Desert Stages Theatre and her experience learning about the importance of giving back from volunteering with amazing groups like Families Giving Back.”