By Kim Underwood
Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools
SEPTEMBER 30, 2014 – At Moore Magnet School, students see a tangible reminder of the importance of compassion whenever they head out to the playground.
The Compassion Corner, as the L-shaped wooden bench is called, is a place where a student can sit when he or she is feeling low. When other students spot someone sitting there, they see it as an invitation to go over and cheer up their fellow student. Perhaps they will invite him or her to play. Maybe they will just visit for a minute or two.
It has worked quite well, said Anne Collins, the school counselor. One child said to her, “It was almost a fight over me because more than one child came over.”
“I think they take pride in it and believe in it,” said Jenn Currin, a graduate student working with Collins as an intern. “Students are coming whether they know the person or not.”
The Compassion Corner is a visible component of the atmosphere of compassion that Collins and others at Moore are working to make flourish. Bolton Elementary School also has a Compassion Corner. The people with Compassionate Winston-Salem, the organization that helped bring the benches to both schools, hope that other elementary schools throughout Forsyth County will come to have their own benches.
“We would love to have a bench at every elementary school,” said Drea Parker, the coordinator for Compassionate Winston-Salem.
A Compassion Corner certainly needs some painted butterflies and inspiring thoughts. So, the other day, Moore art teacher Teresa Wiles headed out to the bench with two of her star art students – fifth-graders Ija Mumford and Justin Dickerson – to paint the bench. While Ija and Justin each painted a butterfly, Wiles went to work on “Treat others the way you want to be treated.”
With the help of Collins and Currin, students in classes throughout the school have been talking about the importance of compassion.
“To me, it means to have feelings for other people – to be kind,” Ija said.
That was something she worked to do even before they started talking about it in school, she said. She is kind to her fellow students in a number of ways. “When they fall, I help them up,” she said. “If they need help in class, I help them when they are stuck on a problem or something.”
For Justin, compassion means exactly what Wiles was painting on the bench. “Treat others the way you want to be treated,” he said.
“They are both very compassionate kids,” Wiles said.
The Compassion Corner at Bolton is also on the school’s playground, and Bolton school counselor Rinita Williams has also been using it as a focus for talking with students about the importance of treating others with kindness and compassion. “I’m hoping that this bench is going to make children more compassionate toward each other,” Williams said.
She has told students that the bench is a place where “you can go and talk about your feelings when you are having a not-so-happy day.”
When she took a group of fourth-graders out to the bench one day, they ended up creating an impromptu play as they acted out various scenarios of helping others. This week is Spirit Week at Bolton. As part of that, Williams said, students are making a point to do kind acts for others and some have written about the bench. Weather permitting, art teacher Heidi Wicker plans to work with students next week to paint it.
The Compassion Corners are one aspect of Compassionate Winston-Salem’s efforts to nourish compassion in the community. Winston-Salem was the 18th city in the United States – and the first in North Carolina – to designate itself as a Compassionate City.
“It’s easy to put something like that on paper,” said Dean Clifford, the chair of Compassionate Winston-Salem’s education task force. “The next step was ‘How do we make this real?’”
“They wanted to reach out to the community to try to forward the whole compassion movement,” Collins said. “The schools are an obvious place to start.”
Clifford and Truman Dunn, a retired minister who is active in Compassionate Winston-Salem, began working with Collins. Everyone wanted something that was small and concrete and that wouldn’t add to the already heavy workload for teachers, said Clifford, whose career in education included serving as the guidance counselor at Old Town Elementary and starting the family support program at Bolton.
Elsewhere, people had put up what they called a Buddy Bench, Collins said.
Dunn said, “That seemed to me to be the ideal way to begin to reach children with the concept of compassion.”
“We wanted to use the word ‘compassion’ in ours,” Collins said.
And thus was born the Compassion Corner.
Clifford also approached the people at Bolton. “The faculties in both cases have responded quite enthusiastically,” she said.
Moore already had a strong partnership with Highland Presbyterian Church and Temple Emanuel, which operate a food pantry for Moore families, and Bolton has a strong partnership with Knollwood Baptist Church. Highland and Temple Emanuel agreed to pay for a bench at Moore and Knollwood agreed to pay for a bench at Bolton.
Compassionate Winston-Salem volunteers Rob Castro and Jay McNulty offered to build the benches.
“I saw it as an opportunity to help make positive changes in our community,” Castro said. “I hope the schools and students really embrace the program fully.”
In recent years, he said, there have been too many tragedies involving children, and his hope is that such projects can help prevent others from happening.
“If children have a place where they can show that they are not feeling part of the group – because sometimes children and even adults have difficulties expressing themselves with words – and others can identify that and make that child fit in then build a friendship from there it could lead to many great things,” Castro said.
McNulty said that, at first, he wasn’t sure how the students would respond to the bench. He is delighted to see that it has been met with great enthusiasm by both kids and members of the staff.
“As Rob expressed,” McNulty said, “there are many tragic things that have occurred over the last few years seemingly by kids who felt like they did not fit in. By creating avenues for sharing and acceptance, I hope we are creating a positive influence and environment where kids feel safe and accepted.”
The men completed both benches in August before school started. Once students arrived, Collins and Currin began going into classrooms and teaching students about compassion. They might role-play situations that call for compassion such as seeing someone fall or drop a tray in the cafeteria and going over to help the person. They might talk about how, if student see that others are making fun of someone, they can go over and ask the person to play with them.
Collins and Currin have also been reading books with the students that tell stories about compassion. The Spiffiest Giant in Town tells the story of a nattily dressed giant who keeps giving away his clothing to take care of others’ needs. A mouse gets one of his shoes for a house. A cold giraffe gets his tie to use as a scarf.
Collins has also talked with the students about how adults aren’t immune from feeling low and needing a boost from others. “Kids need to know we have had bad days,” Collins said. “We get out feelings hurt.”
Talking to some of the students who were watching the crew paint the bench the other day, it was clear that the message treating everyone with compassion has registered.
Kindergartener Joshua Peoples said, “If someone is sad, you can play with them.”
After completing the “Treat others…” thought, Wiles went on to add such other words and phrases as “Share,” “Use kind words,” “Help when you can” and “Smile.”