NORTH PROVIDENCE – They’re called “Buddy Benches,” and the concept is fairly simple: If someone is sitting on the bench, they’re looking for a friend to play with or someone to talk to.
Also known as friendship benches, the goal is to foster connection and eliminate loneliness.
The first bench of its kind locally was dedicated in North Providence in October 2019, in memory of Ian Novacek, a Ricci Middle School student who died unexpectedly the year before.
To honor Novacek’s legacy of kindness, his classmates in the project-based engineering and technology program mechatronics helped build two buddy benches in his memory.
His principal, TJ Mellen, described Ian as “one of the most friendly, caring and thoughtful students that I ever met.”
“Having a Buddy Bench and what that signifies is something we wanted to do for him. We wanted to do something to memorialize Ian,” he said.
Word of the concept began to spread.
Within a year, Centredale Elementary became the second school in town to receive a buddy bench built by Ricci students.
With the support and encouragement of their teachers and community leaders such as School Committee member Chuck Pollock, the mechatronics team began designing a bench for every school in town.
The School Committee formally backed the project in November 2019, voting to allow Ricci to move forward with building additional benches. At the time, Mellen said the district had children “move in on an almost daily basis,” and that the benches would help them feel less isolated.
The project was full-steam ahead, but the pandemic interrupted students’ progress, though it didn’t derail the work completely.
Today, every middle and elementary school in North Providence has its own buddy bench on campus.
Two more benches were dedicated this week at McGuire Elementary and Birchwood Middle School. Ricci students overcame multiple challenges to see the project through, including COVID and the lack of a tech teacher to oversee the project. The school resource officer stepped in to help.
Speaking at Birchwood Middle School on Sept. 30, Novacek’s mother, Heather Callanan, said it’s “always special when another bench is dedicated, and each one is just as beautiful as the very first” made in honor of her son.
Ian’s favorite number was 37, the jersey number of one of his closest friends in town. The dedication fell on the 37th month since Ian’s death. He was diagnosed with dwarfism, and Callanan noted that October is Dwarfism Awareness Month.
Each bench is a different color, and Ian’s bench at Ricci is green for dwarfism awareness.
“You can Google or YouTube Ian’s name. Your homework is to look up my son. I promise that you will smile, because he really was a little sunshine,” she said.
She thanked Pollock for his support, saying the effort to spread the buddy benches across North Providence has helped heal her heart.
Callanan said she hopes the students remember the project, “because it really means something special to me.”
“If you see anybody sitting alone, come on up and say hello. Even if you’re shy … it will get easier every time you try,” she said.
Callanan said she was especially grateful to student Jeremiah Nouel, who sang his original song “Hero” at McGuire’s dedication. The song, which is about the hero spirit that lives within everyone, earned national recognition when Nouel submitted it into the National Parent Teacher Organization’s Reflections art contest in 2019.
She called Nouel’s willingness to sing his song “an impromptu act of kindness.”
Also during the event, a Ricci student who helped build the benches said they “mean a lot to the town because of the meaning behind them.”
“They mean friendship, relationship and meeting new people. The memories I’ve made from making the benches alone are some of the best I have,” he said.