Building partnerships to combat loneliness in the school playground

There are many stories about where the ‘Buddy Bench’ concept came from. Some say it all started with an American boy who, when faced with the possibility of moving overseas with his family, conceived the idea as a way of creating a place for lonely children to meet in the schoolyard of his new hometown.

Others believe the idea started in Australia, just like the international Men’s Shed movement. But it took the Irish to inspire a group of Rotarians to embrace the concept afresh in Australia and to see it flourish, especially throughout Perth in Western Australia.

PICTURED: Rotary Club of Gosnells members with Rotary Club of Como Project Coordinator Kevin Saunders and members of the Station Street Men’s Shed.

As John Dodman, Director of Community Services for the Rotary Club of Como, WA, explains, it all started with a BBC World Radio program he was listening to back in 2019.

“The program was all about the Buddy Bench Association of Ireland and how these benches in the school playground signified a ‘safe place’ for vulnerable children and acted as a deterrent to schoolyard bullying,” John said. “I started to consider how this successful, simple community project could be adapted by Rotary in Perth. The answer was equally simple – get the regional Men’s Sheds involved.”

It’s an inspired connection. Just as Men’s Sheds are a place for men to come together and find a lifeline to cope with issues such as isolation and bereavement, so too are the Buddy Benches a way of prompting connection with others and overcoming loneliness in the schoolyard.

PICTURED: A new Buddy Bench constructed by the Rotary Club of Victoria Park and Victoria Park Men’s Shed for a local primary school.

The Rotary Club of Como had a Community Partnership Agreement with Manning Men’s Shed to jointly support projects in the local community, and Shed members were keen to get involved. Together, they installed their first benches at Collier Primary School that same year, as part of the school’s Resilience Program.

“Collier Primary agreed to take two benches, which were delivered ‘raw’ so the children could paint them and achieve a greater sense of ownership,” John said.

PICTURED: Members of the Rotary Club of Kenwick with students at Yale Primary School on the day of delivery of a new Buddy Bench.

Endorsed by the WA Department of Education and Men’s Shed Association of WA, the success of the first benches ultimately led to the club acting as an ‘agent’ for other schools, Rotary clubs and regional Men’s Sheds to come together to build more. Despite there being a few benches at other primary schools, there had never been a coordinated approach.

“We suggest a local Rotary club act as coordinator of the project between the school and the Men’s Shed, and to support the funding needed for basic raw material, which is in the range of $200 to $300,” John said. “The Men’s Shed will liaise with the school and build the Buddy Bench.”

The Rotary Club of Como has now connected another Men’s Shed and Rotary club with two local primary schools, which have each received a bench.

As of August 2023, more than 50 Buddy Benches – most proudly displaying plaques with the Rotary logo – have been made and installed throughout the greater Perth region, thanks to the three-way partnership.

With the support and generous donations of Bunnings and Perth’s Madalia Steel, more are in the making – all constructed at a fraction of the cost of commercial equivalents and crafted with love and the input of the children they are designed to support.

MAIN PICTURE: A Buddy Bench in the process of being constructed at Manning Men’s Shed by Shed Coordinator Allan Waugh.