When is a bench more than just a place to sit? When it helps children not feel alone. Jefferson Primary School in Pekin is getting a friendship bench. The bench is a place for children to go who need a friend or someone to talk to. Then other students see a fellow classmate who isn’t playing with someone and can invite that student to join in.

School counselor Julie Maras said she came across the bench on Facebook. 

“I saw the bench on (the furniture store Sherman’s) page and saw that they were going to Peoria schools,” said Maras, “so I messaged them asking them if we could have one and got a quick reply ‘yes.’”

Part of getting a friendship bench is making it unique to the school. Jefferson School was provided with markers to decorate it.

Neither Maras nor Jefferson School Principal Jon Cox consider themselves to be very artistic. They knew they needed some assistance, and Cox had someone in mind. He called Erica Ziegenbein, who owns Soulshine Art Studio in Pekin, to help with painting and decorating the bench.

Ziegenbein said she was more than happy to help with the project.

“I grew up here in Pekin, and my daughter goes to Pekin schools,” said Ziegenbein. “It is a great way to get involved in the community. I love art and art with kids. I’m happy to help anytime.”

She invited the October students of the month to walk the short distance to her studio at 420 Walnut St. Four students who exemplified the “HAWKS” code from each grade level were chosen to help decorate the bench. The Jefferson School mascot is a hawk, which stands for honesty, attitude, welcoming, kindness and safety. One day the second and third graders came, and the kindergartners and first graders came another day.

Cox said the bench really fits into their school code — the teachers and staff encourage students to be welcoming and kind — and adding the friendship bench is another way for the Jefferson Hawks to live up to their code.

“It has been a wonderful opportunity to make it beautiful, unique and to really make it our own,” said Maras. “No one bench is exactly like another. (Ziegenbein) has been wonderful to work with.”

The finished product will be unveiled at an all school assembly on December 5. Paul Sherman from Sherman’s will be there to talk to the students about the origins of the friendship bench. About 5 years ago, a then fifth grader named Acacia Woodley started the friendship benches, and the idea has spread across the nation.

Jefferson Hawks will also get a bracelet that reads “You are amazing” to remind them of their worth.

Maras said she hopes the students will utilize the bench and realize they’ll never be alone at the school. The school plans to recognize those students who have been positive and helped a friend. 

Several other Pekin schools have expressed an interest in getting a friendship bench after hearing about Jefferson Primary School’s. Maras said she plans to team up with Ziegenbein again for future bench projects if the other schools get a bench.