New benches promote inclusion

Published 10:18 pm Monday, January 15, 2018

With more attention being paid to bullying and mental health issues, the Suffolk Education Foundation found a solution to help children in need at Suffolk schools.

Buddy Benches have been placed at nearly all Suffolk elementary schools. The benches help to eliminate loneliness and foster friendships on the playground, according to

The idea of the benches is that a child who is feeling lonely can sit on the bench, and other students will know that person needs a friend and go talk to them.

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In September 2015, SEF bounced around quite a few ideas to honor former board member Ernest “Ernie” Leber. Leber was on the board from 2009 to 2014. Academics and Suffolk Public Schools were always a part of Leber’s life. The former board member was also a chemistry tutor. Leber died by suicide in July 2015.

“We started it because of former board member Ernie Leber, and to honor him the board bounced around several ideas,” said Patrick Belcher, SEF board member. “He was an engineer and deeply involved in the Suffolk Public School system.”

SEF debated several ideas to honor him, including setting up a scholarship for engineering or a classroom grant in his name.

But the Buddy Bench seemed like a natural option because of the nature of Leber’s death, and it gives the opportunity to set up “buddy mentors” at the schools, Belcher said.

Once the foundation landed on the idea of the Buddy Bench, they went forward to secure the funding for $7,500 project.

“It included the Suffolk Ruritan Club, former Suffolk School employees who were familiar with Ernie, and the former superintendent donated,” Belcher said. “It really did take a village to make this project.”

“They are colorful and they stand out. They say Buddy Bench on the back of them, and all of them were dedicated in the memory of someone,” Belcher said.

The bench dedicated in Leber’s name is located at Oakland Elementary School.