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Buddy Bench 1

Sumner Youngs and her son, Joshua Salisbury, 9, are raising money for five Buddy Benches for the Auburn elementary schools.

AUBURN — Sumner Youngs never wants another child to feel lonely or out of place like her son, Joshua Salisbury, has.

Sumner and Joshua, 9, who are from Auburn, are raising money to create Buddy Benches — playground benches where children who are feeling left out can sit. Children who see someone sitting on the benches are encouraged to reach out to them, and talk and play with them.

Sumner saw a video about the idea on Facebook last month. Indiana student Sammie Vance came up with it, collecting hundreds of plastic caps so a company could use them to make the benches.

The idea resonated with Joshua, who has autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Sumner said. She said Joshua often has issues socializing with his peers, but is extremely loving.

"I was letting him watch the video and he was like, 'Mommy, I like that,' Sumner said.

Sumner created a GoFundMe page to raise $5,000 to cover the costs of the benches and possibly renting a truck to go to the Indiana company that built Vance's benches, just in case Sumner isn't able to find a plastic company in New York state that will build them. Whoever she finds to build the benches, Sumner plans to donate any leftover money to a child-centered organization.

The goal, Sumner said, is to have five benches built. She said she has been told that benches will be added in the spring to the playground installation built at Casey Park Elementary School last year, and that one of them will have "Buddy Bench" marked on it. With that school covered, she wants to have a bench placed at the four other Auburn elementary schools, as well as St. Joseph School, after someone on Facebook suggested that the Catholic school should have a Buddy Bench. 

In the past, the Indiana company has made the benches for a discounted rate in exchange for 200 pounds of plastic per bench, Sumner said. So a bottle-and-can drive is being held at the Fingerlakes Community Recycling Center just in case.

Joshua, who was at Hoopes Park in Auburn Friday with Sumner while darting around the area or playing a phone game with equal amounts of enthusiasm, said he has seen other lonely children at school and wants to "help them get friends" through the Buddy Benches. Her project has a Facebook page as well.

Auburn school district Superintendent Jeff Pirozzolo, who spoke to Sumner about the project, said he is a big fan of the idea.

"Kids will always know they have buddies wherever they go," Pirozzolo said. "It's just a great thing to build relationships between kids."

One of the other reasons Sumner wants to do the project in Auburn is because she feels there is a distinct lack of community togetherness and outreach programs geared toward children in the area. Sumner, who left Auburn for 18 years before returning, said she wants to integrate that feeling of kindness into Auburn and beyond. A lonely student being approached on the bench by a peer could make a difference for that student, she said.

"Going over and making them feel important for five minutes? It will make a kid's day," she said.

​Although Sumner said Joshua doesn't always mesh well with his peers, she still wants to teach him to do right by others.

"It's showing my son that even if people are mean, we can still do kind things," she said. 

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Staff writer Kelly Rocheleau can be reached at (315) 282-2243 or kelly.rocheleau@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @KellyRocheleau.

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Education Reporter