After a series of deadly school shootings, the most recent in Parkland, Florida, many of us are asking the question, "What can we do to prevent future violence?" A Florida teen has created a tool that she believes can stop a school shooting before it happens, and that tool is now in Northeast Wisconsin.
Acacia Woodley, who lives with a disability, became the target of bullying when she moved to a new school in Florida. When she confronted her bully, she learned that girl was hurting and taking it out on others. It's then that Woodley came up with an idea to stop the cycle. She created a friendship bench. She believes something as simple as a bench can prevent school shootings by teaching students compassion.
"It's really important, especially at the age these students are at, because starting them young and teaching them young that kindness is more of an answer than violence is just really important," she explained.
NBC26 was there in March when Woodley delivered friendship benches to three Fond du Lac elementary schools and the Boys & Girls Club of Fond du Lac. We returned this week, two months later, and found the bench at the Club is getting a lot of use.
"One time I used the bench because I was lonely and I was sad, and I didn't have anybody to cheer me up," said 9-year-old Scarlett Carlin.
When a girl saw Scarlett sitting on the bench, she did as she was trained. She walked over to help.
"She said, 'What's wrong?' And then I said, 'I miss my family.' And then she's like, 'I miss my family too,'" explained Carlin. "So we talked through it, and then I felt happy again."
Fifth grader Gigi Martin said the care shown to her while using the bench helped improve her self- esteem.
"I remind myself that I am amazing in different ways, and sometimes it's hard to see through that."
Boys & Girls Club of Fond du Lac CEO Dan Hebel believes the friendship bench is a huge asset.
"We can't say enough how much it supports the mental health of our kids. We're engaged in a time in our society where mental health is a big deal, and the main thing missing is really strong connections for kids."
Hebel said by providing a safe space and building stronger relationships, students will have a higher likelihood of reaching their full potential.
"It creates a valuable, important, positive link between the child and their school, so if they value that, they're less likely to do something that's tragic and certainly something our communities don't need."
Tom Schneider, President of Silica For Your Home, helped donate the funds to bring the friendship benches to Fond du Lac.
"The bench itself comes from recycled plastic, so things that were thrown away now make a difference," Schneider explained. "Every part of that bench is rejected, either a color flaw or something like that, so she (Acacia) talks to the kids about that these were all rejected, but when you bring them together it makes an amazingly beautiful bench."
It's symbolism Schneider hopes struggling students will embrace.
"If people can reach out to them early and make sure that they matter, have them understand that they really mean something, it's going to change their life dramatically," he said.
That's what happened to Gigi and Scarlett who now make sure they pay it forward by offering a listening ear when they see someone sitting on the friendship bench.
"I don't like seeing people sad. I like seeing them happy," Scarlett said.
There are nine friendship benches in Fond du Lac and North Fond du Lac. Schneider hopes to donate a few more to make sure they're in every elementary school in that area.
As for Woodley, she has set a goal of getting her friendship benches into every school in America. She has created the company Tiny Girl, Big Dream which also offers friendship kits.