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Friendship bench at Thunder Hill Elementary built to help students connect

From left to right, Aria Lunt, 11, Simran Kalia, 10, Hailey Condron, 11, and Shriya Menon, 11 stand behind the friendship bench they created before the ribbon-cutting ceremony on Monday afternoon.
From left to right, Aria Lunt, 11, Simran Kalia, 10, Hailey Condron, 11, and Shriya Menon, 11 stand behind the friendship bench they created before the ribbon-cutting ceremony on Monday afternoon. (Staff photo by Lisa Philip)

Simran Kalia said that when she started first grade as a new student at Thunder Hill Elementary School, she felt lonely.

"Everyone else had their groups from kindergarten, so it was hard for me to make friends," said Simran, who is now in sixth grade at Oakland Mills Middle School.

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Simran did some research and found out about friendship benches, which are installed in playgrounds and other public spaces to help people make friends.

"If you're feeling lonely, you can go and sit on the bench," Simran said. "If another student sees you on the bench, they can come over and talk to you or invite you to play."

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Simran eventually became friends with three girls in her Girl Scout troop, Troop 4709, who also attended Thunder Hill Elementary, in Columbia, and wanted to help her create a friendship bench for a Girl Scout Bronze Star project.

"It's open to fifth- and sixth- graders," said Simran's friend, Aria Lunt, now a sixth-grader at Oakland Mills Middle. "First you find something that needs to be fixed in your community, then you find a way to fix it."

After trying to persuade school administration to install a friendship bench at Thunder Hill Elementary, Simran, Aria and their friends and fellow Girl Scouts Hailey Condron and Shriya Menon asked the manager at a Home Depot if he would donate the materials for the project.

"They sort of thought, 'if we provide it they'll have to put it in,'" said Aria's mother, Joanne Alme.

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Manager Brent Harshaw said yes, and even allowed the girls to test spray paint colors for the bench on the store's floor.

"We built the bench ourselves at my house," said Hailey, a sixth-grader at Ellicott Mills Middle School.

The girls spray painted the metal bench neon yellow and blue to match Thunder Hill Elementary colors. At the top of the bench, there is a plaque that includes the girls' names and a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: "The only way to have a friend is to be one."

The bench was installed in the school's playground on Monday afternoon during a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by the girls' mothers, Howard County Public Schools Chief Operating Officer Camille Jones, the school's acting principal, Martha Bowen, and the school's counselor, Rebecca Reeb.

"I just think it's so sweet," said Bowen. "They want everyone to have friends."

After the ceremony, the four girls made an announcement to Thunder Hill students about the new friendship bench, over the school's public address system.

"If you see someone on the bench, come and talk to them or invite them to play," Simran said during the announcement. "That way no one will be lonely during recess."

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