Samantha, 9, is a fourth grader at Aquebogue Elementary School who was feeling sad yesterday, worrying that she had no friends. That’s when Ja’dah, also 9, stood right up and said, “I’ll be your friend.” said Phil Kent, principal. “It just took about three seconds.”
Kent told the story yesterday at two assemblies at the school, one with third and fourth graders, the other, for children in grades K through 2, to mark the dedication of a new “Buddy Bench” in memory of Kaitlyn Doorhy, a young Mattituck woman who died at 20 after being struck by a car while away at college last year.
The Buddy Benches, said Kait’s mom Darla Doorhy, will be installed at each elementary school on the North Fork, including Southold, Greenport, Aquebogue, Oysterponds, New Suffolk and Riley Avenue. The first was installed at Cutchogue East last November.
Mary Lou Araneo spoke to the children yesterday, explaining Kait’s Angels, the not-for-profit organization that is donating the benches, which was organized to keep Kait’s mission of doing good work and acts of kindness alive forever.
The bench will be placed near the playground, and students who are feeling lonely, or are having a hard day and need a friend, can sit there, so that others can come and lift their spirits, much as Kait’s Angels is uplifting so many with good works, Kent said.
“Kait left our lives too soon and we have been tested by her loss,” Araneo said. But while there is an empty chair, “her presence is still strong” among those who love her and celebrate her life every day, she said.
Kait’s Angels encourages people to find their value, and to be a force for good in the world. At her funeral, William Araneo, who delivered Kait’s eulogy, said she was a force, and that force lives on today, his wife said.
It’s important to her parents that Kait’s memory helps children to learn to live their lives to the fullest, to be a friend to those who need one, to take a stand against bullying, to go sit on the Buddy Bench, if they see a fellow classmate who could use a boost of kindness, Kent said.
Children asked questions, including what they should do if too many kids sat on the Buddy Bench at once. Kent told them that the whole process of making a friend could take seconds, so they wouldn’t need to be sitting on the bench alone for long.
“What if you’re sitting on the bench and no one comes to be your friend?” another child asked.
Kent said that adult teachers would be there to help. He also said that at Aquebogue, while the children might not be best friends, the spirit of respect and kindness, and the sense of acting together as a team, would ensure that no child would be left on the bench; he was certain students would step up to be their friend.
Xiomara White, who teaches third grade, said students will also alert staff if a child is feeling alone; that very thing happened yesterday when the kids told her that one boy said he thought maybe no one liked him. They all gave him a group hug, she said.
Last November, braving cold winds and carrying bursts of sunshine in the sunflowers she loved, with bright pink T-shirts and roses, the community gathered with the Mattituck Cutchogue PTA, which dedicated “Kaitlyn’s Buddy Bench” in her memory to the children of Cutchogue East Elementary School.
At the ribbon cutting, Kaitlyn’s was remembered for her long list of academic and extra-curricular accomplishments, as well as her incredible work ethic, including three jobs. Not only did she graduate with honors, but Kaitlyn was an alter server at Sacred Heart, a member of the NJROTC, a Girl Scout who received the highest honors, National Honor Society, varsity soccer, and first place in DECA.
But it was in remembering her spirit of philanthropy that Kait’s Angels, a not-for-profit organization aimed at acts of kindness and helping others in need, was born.
Over the past year, events have included a designer Wingo fundraiser on Kait’s 21st birthday, a Poker Run, and a yard sale to help the family of Benjamin Pileski, another young Mattituck man struck by a car in Montauk on July 4 weekend.
The Buddy Benches, Doorhy said, are a perfect way to share her daughter’s love for helping others: According to the Christian’s Buddy Bench website, which created the idea, “The buddy bench is a simple idea to eliminate loneliness and foster friendship on the playground. Let’s spread the message of inclusion and kindness.”
The students at Aquebogue Elementary watched a short video on Christian’s Buddy Bench before yesterday’s assemblies.
The idea is that children who are feeling alone or bullied can sit on the bench and have a friend sit down with them, breaking down the walls and opening the doors for new friendships and a sense of belonging.
Today, Kait’s Angels will continue helping others, when they attend a spaghetti dinner fundraiser in Greenport for firefighter Kenny White, who is battling cancer. Kait’s Angels donated all the paper goods and volunteers will be onhand to help with the event, which takes place from 4 to 8 p.m. at the Third Street Firehouse.
Kait’s life may have been cut tragically short, but she lived “a life fulfilled, in countless ways,” Araneo said. That’s why the Buddy Bench, fostering friendship, is a perfect way to remember her. “She had lots and lots of friends,” Araneo said. “She’d always give everyone around her a chance to be her friend.”
“Kaitlyn was changing the world,” Doorhy said. “We want to make sure her memory lives on forever.”