Ashkar evolving for the friendlier

KATELYN HIBBARD/Sun-Gazette Ashkar Elementary principal Sherry Cowburn, far right, teacher Tracie Lunger, standing second in from left, and Lunger's sixth grade class surround Hughesville High Schoolers Skylar Young, left, and Brittany Kontz, on the buddy bench they developed in conjunction with the Lycoming Career and Technology Center.

HUGHESVILLE — Ashkar Elementary School is working on making its campus more friendly for both students and animals by installing a “buddy bench” and planting butterfly gardens.

Buddy benches are a tool for helping children build relationships on the playground. Students who are feeling lonely or looking for a new friend are instructed to sit at a specially designated bench — this gives them the opportunity to meet and make friends with one another.

The idea came from Brittany Kontz and Skylar Young, both seniors at Hughesville High School. The girls were looking for a Social Change Project idea for the Pennsylvania College of Technology Youth Leadership Program and stumbled on a video of students using the bench at a school in another state.

They conspired with the Lycoming Career and Technology Center to budget for, build and paint the benches, then created four of them — one for Ashkar and three others, which were distributed between Renn and Ferrell Elementary Schools.

“All three elementary schools have received buddy benches and our guidance counselor is giving lessons on how to use them,” Sherry Cowburn, Ashkar’s principal, said.

Young, who helps Ashkar students in an afterschool program, said she sees children of all ages putting the bench to good use.

“Whenever I go out to the playground, I see the kids use it,” she said. “They might not always use it as a buddy bench, but they still sit together and chat.”

Though a grant was denied for the benches as a social change project through their Youth Leadership Program, Cowburn is happy Young and Kontz chose to make them anyway.

“They didn’t let (not getting the grant) get in the way of their plans,” she said. “Their level of commitment speaks volumes about their dedication to our schools.”

And students of all ages feel the same way.

“It’s a good way to meet new friends and get to know others,” sixth grader Madi Paulhamus said. “Some people don’t have friends and I thought that was a creative way to help get friends.”

“I think the bench is good … I’ve used it and got to play with someone I wasn’t good friends with. Now we are good friends,” said sixth-grader Kylie Kilgore.

The next step for Ashkar is to implement butterfly gardens and a bird habitat, which is not only good for the environment and the school, but also aligns with the fourth grade science curriculum, Cowburn said.

Aubrey Hamm, a fourth grader, suggested the idea to Cowburn after reading a book that talked about birds and butterflies often getting hurt because they don’t have a safe place to stay, and that showed how to build a butterfly garden.

“I started asking questions — ‘Where are you going to get the money to do something like this?’ “ Cowburn said.

That’s when she found Tractor Supply’s “Dig It” grant, and asked teacher Jessica Pannella to apply. When they were approved, Cowburn asked Hamm to help come up with the plan.

“I picked Sadia (Ammar- Khodja) and Maya (Poust), who are my best friends, to help me because I can’t do it all by myself,” Hamm said, adding that the gardens will “make our school brighter, happier and more beautiful.”

“It can also be a learning experience for students who want to learn more about gardens and butterflies,” Ammar-Khodja added. “They can go out and enjoy nature.”

The grant totals $500 and the project will begin this spring, when cold weather is no longer a threat. The garden will be a class-effort and it will include five to seven bird feeders, two or three benches and several types of flowers and plants for the butterflies.

“I don’t think $500 will cover all of their wishes, but it’s enough to get them started,” Cowburn said. “I love their enthusiasm, and I love their concern for nature.”

The girls said they hope to fundraise and may ask for plant donations as time to start the gardens gets closer. They may hold a bake sale or other types of fundraiser during the annual Spring Fling, which will be May 5.

“They’re already thinking about if they’ll need more funds, and they’re trying to be resourceful,” Cowburn said, expressing her pride in the students. “It all starts with a good idea.”