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A decade later, Buddy Club’s legacy continues to foster friendship

Members of the Vermillion Elementary School Buddy Club, 2014Ten years ago, a group of Vermillion Elementary School second-grade students wanted to make their school a better place. Fueled by the desire to combat bullying and foster friendship, the students created the Buddy Club. A decade later and on a recent December afternoon, its seven founders – now all 13-year seniors at Maize High School and Maize South High School – reunited to remember how it all started. 

They also learned how their award-winning legacy continues to benefit Vermillion’s current students. 

Among the Buddy Club’s chief projects a decade ago was to create a Buddy Bench. The idea was sparked when Edo Geromel, father of founding club member Vitor Geromel, saw a national news story about a Buddy Bench elsewhere and told Vitor about it.

With the support and help of Vermillion’s school counselor Andi Shipman, the Buddy Club got to work to bring a Buddy Bench to the school’s playground. Vermillion received a Kansas Department of Health and Environment 2014 Waste Tire Grant to help fund the bench, installed that summer using recycled tires.

Then Buddy Club members went class-to-class to explain to their schoolmates how the bench worked: If you need a friend or are feeling lonely, they said, just go to the Buddy Bench. A Buddy Club member will see you and head your way to play. 

Members of the Vermillion Elementary School Buddy Club, 2023Buddy Club members, then in third grade, would invite their peers to be part of the club by pledging not to bully and to be nice. Founding member Alexis Gromala said during those classroom presentations that membership is free and open to anyone.

In 2014, the Buddy Club’s work drew the community’s admiration and coverage from local media. Buddy Club founder Eli Blankinship was 8 at the time, and he told a reporter from The Wichita Eagle, “I heard there was too much bullying going on around the world. So I just decided to start the Buddy Club. And then I was like, ‘Why didn’t I start this earlier?’ ”

On a recent day, Eli, now a Maize High School senior, gathered with his fellow Buddy Club founders for a reunion and a cookie reception with their parents and Mrs. Shipman, who still works as the Vermillion school counselor.

“You’re such incredible leaders,” she told them. She marveled at how much they had grown and how influential they were at such a young age.

A decade ago, she told The Wichita Eagle, “This group of kids is pretty amazing. They’re the ones who thought of it and brought it to us and really got it going.”

The Vermillion Elementary School certificateDuring the reception, Eli laughed and remembered how seriously he and his fellow Buddy Club members took their self-appointed leadership role back then.

When they saw a classmate sitting on the bench, he said, a Buddy Club member would loudly call “Buddy Bench!” to activate group members and call them to action. Sometimes, he laughed, they would stop playing in the middle of a recess soccer game and sprint toward their peer.

A decade later, the Buddy Bench still has a place of prominence on the school’s playground, and students still gather there for friendship and conversation, Shipman told the seniors, “just like you guys had originally planned.”

The seniors also talked about how their experience benefited them in addition to their schoolmates. Eli said his time as a Buddy Club member helped him develop his leadership skills and public speaking skills.

His fellow Buddy Club founders – Jeron Askren, Caden Wait, Aidan Turner, Alexis Gromala, Natalia Felkins, and Vitor Geromel – agreed. As a whole, the students – three at Maize South High School and four at Maize High School – continue to be leaders and are involved in a variety of school activities, including National Honor Society, Red Rage, swimming, soccer, basketball, football, and track. They have plans to attend colleges next year throughout Kansas and as far away as South Carolina to pursue majors and/or careers in areas including law, chemistry, medicine, and education.

Andi ShipmanIn 2014, the Buddy Club’s efforts helped Vermillion earn recognition from the Kansas Schools of Character Recognition Program, sponsored by the Kansas State Department of Education and the Character Education Partnership. The school was celebrated for its Promising Practices in Character Education. During the reunion, Mrs. Shipman invited the students to sign the certificate, which has been framed and on display in Vermillion for the past 10 years.

The seniors also recreated the group photo that helped tell the story a decade ago about the club, the bench, and the award.

The new photo helps demonstrate the lasting ripples of friendship.

The Wichita Eagle, Sept. 3, 2014: Maize students foster friendship, combat bullying with new Buddy Bench