Buddy Benches Coming To Barnegat Schools This Fall

Volunteer students and adults worked together on the construction. (Photo by Stephanie Faughnan)

  BARNEGAT – As some students return to school this September, they are in for a heartwarming surprise – the addition of buddy benches to their playgrounds.

  A Buddy Bench is more than just a seat on the playground; it symbolizes an open invitation for children who may feel isolated or in need of a friend. By sitting on the Buddy Bench, kids communicate that they would welcome a companion, while others are encouraged to show kindness and reach out to those seeking friendship.

  Local adult and student volunteers took on the project brought forth by the remarkable Anthony De Franco, aged 35. De Franco joined the community in 2021 and has since become an inspiration, making significant strides in fostering positive interactions and ensuring his voice is heard.

Anthony De Franco, who initiated the Buddy Bench project, sits with Michele Cucinotta of Barnegat Schools, who helped spur it into action. (Photo courtesy Bob Schwanke)

  “Growing up, I was being bullied by other kids, especially at school,” said De Franco. “This caused me to feel left out, and I struggled to make new friends with them, because I am both deaf and autistic.”

  “I wished to find a way to do something to fight against bullying by educating kids how to show respect, acceptance and love toward each other to build a friendship,” De Franco continued.

  Upon doing some research a few years ago, De Franco came across the Buddy Bench concept and eagerly watched videos that showed schools all over the country using them on their playgrounds. Intrigued by the idea and its potential to foster new friendships and combat bullying, De Franco decided to present the idea in the community he lived in prior to Barnegat.

  “I made my first Buddy Bench presentation to the home and school association at Peter Cooper Elementary School in Ringwood in 2020,” shared De Franco. “I built one Buddy Bench at their playground with a local Girl Scouts group there.”

  The project was such a success that De Franco decided his new community would also benefit from making Buddy Benches available to children.

  Michele Cucinotta, a district school counselor and community liaison, became intrigued when she came across a social media post from De Franco detailing the Buddy Bench concept. With her passion for fostering positive change, Cucinotta recognized the potential of the idea and decided to help turn it into a reality.

  Without hesitation, Cucinotta promptly tapped into her extensive network of caring individuals, all part of the Barnegat Community that Cares (“CTC”) coalition. She said she was confident that the group’s shared mission of pooling resources for the greater good, would be the key to making everything fall seamlessly into place.

  The first step was gaining approval from school administrators and that was easy. With their support secured, the next challenge was to secure funds for the materials needed to build the benches. As it turned out, that wasn’t a difficult task either.

  Cucinotta arranged for De Franco to make a presentation at the Barnegat Rotary Club. The membership was so impressed by the project that they immediately agreed to fund the materials for four Buddy Benches.

Anthony De Franco takes a hands-on approach to the creation of the Buddy Benches. (Photo by Stephanie Faughnan)

  Following the successful fundraising efforts, the next challenge was finding someone to oversee the construction of the benches. Cucinotta knew just who to turn to and reached out to another member of the Barnegat Community that Cares coalition, Ron Fraser from Starve Poverty International. With expertise in construction projects for individuals facing financial challenges, the group was the perfect fit – and also eager to help.

  The project was soon off and running – with just the need for some additional hands to do the work.

  De Franco himself showed up recently and followed directives to aid in the construction project. Fraser’s daughter, Jessica, who works in the Athletic Department of Barnegat High School was there to chip in, as was construction leader Jim Gagnon and his son Todd, who is the band director at the Brackman Middle School.

  Despite it being summer, Cucinotta also managed to recruit a number of Barnegat students to help expedite the project. Gannon Tumphrey, Maxwell Wattez, Jack Weber and Nathan Winters all return to Barnegat High School in the fall.

  “I’m here because I decided to help my community,” Gannon said. “I feel like it’s just something nice to do.”

  Apparently, the other three students were there for the same reason.

  “We’re also hoping to get copies of a book that goes with the benches,” shared Cucinotta. “I am waiting to hear back the Tigger Stavalo Foundation, which brought the district assemblies last year and are big into drug prevention.”

Volunteer students and adults worked together on the construction. (Photo by Stephanie Faughnan)

  Cucinotta explained that Tigger was a boy who died from an accidental overdose at just 25 years old. He was from the Jersey shore and his parents are philanthropists whose foundation is youth oriented.

  Three of four completed benches will be set up at Barnegat’s Dunfee, Collins and Donahue schools for the district’s younger children. The remaining bench is earmarked for the ACES program at the Brackman Middle School.

  As for De Franco, he has exciting plans to personally demonstrate how the buddy benches work to the students. Some of them might already be familiar with the enthusiastic and engaging young man who gives ASL lessons on the Barnegat Bay Beach.

Photo courtesy Bob Schwanke

  For those students who have yet to meet De Franco they will undoubtedly be captivated by the warmth in his eyes and his sincere desire to create an environment where every person feels accepted and valued.