New Buddy Benches Create Safe Space for Mason County Students

RDI’s Rural Community Leadership program in Mason County brought together rural Washington community members to learn to be leaders, create lifelong connections, and make a difference in their communities. As part of the leadership program, participants worked on a project dubbed “kindness” which aims to eliminate loneliness and foster friendship at each of the county’s elementary schools. Buddy benches (where no child sits alone) were installed at ten Mason County elementary schools to help spread kindness on the playground. The project included the creation of a curriculum for teachers focused on kindness for students. 
RDI spent 14 years training leaders in rural communities throughout Oregon and Siskiyou County, California, and delivered the leadership program in more than 350 rural communities with over 8,000 rural leadership graduates. A natural next step was to bring the leadership program to rural Washington, and thanks to donors and supporters, this effort was successfully launched with community support in 2016.  
When community member Don Welander found out about the leadership program he realized he wanted to use it as a way to hone his leadership skills and network with people in the community who are willing to make a difference for the better. The program “made me realize that we have a great community and a lot of untapped talent... It re-energized me and gave me new direction in the community,” articulated Welander. "This program has provided a forum for quality networking and forming a bond with others in the community that have the same vision of moving our county forward.”
Training sessions were held in both the northern and southern ends of the county, making this a countywide effort. Mason County participants have already strengthened their social capital and the culture of collaboration in their communities. They are now equipped to address community issues and develop community projects that strengthen the vitality of their places and economies.
Reflecting on the impact of the leadership program, cohort member Mendy Harlow shared, “I truly think that the Buddy Benches have already had a positive impact on students in Mason County. Giving young folks the opportunity to learn about compassion and caring is so important in order to create a more understanding world.” 
“The letters we received from the students about the impact of the Buddy Bench on them and their friends, (i.e. ‘If it were not for the buddy bench I would never have met my new best friend’) is enough for me to know the impact of the benches now and for as long as they last! I am so honored to have been able to be a part of a program that will have endless positive impacts on our community now and in the future. I made long lasting connections to others that are working to make our community better!” reflected cohort member Kathy Geist.
The spark of leadership catches where we live, learn, work, and play. Building and connecting community leaders, and linking them to resources through the Rural Community Leadership Program, has the power to inspire, mobilize, and transform rural communities.  As a leadership program participant articulated, “The moment you educate someone… a spark of understanding flashes in their eye. They become invested and responsible. They realize that they have the power to do something to help our community. And if we are lucky, that spark is just the beginning to bigger and greater things.”
Enormous thanks to the following for their generous support of the Mason County Rural Community Leadership Program:
  • Community Foundation of South Puget Sound 
  • Medina Foundation
  • North Mason Chamber of Commerce 
  • Shelton Chambers of Commerce
  • Washington State University Extension Service
  • Mason County PUD No. 1
  • Mason County Fire District and Port District
  • Peninsula Credit Union
  • Green Diamond
  • Taylor Shellfish