Charlotte Mandziuk, now a 10-year-old fifth grader at Maltby Intermediate in Brighton, was very young when she learned a painful lesson: recess isn’t all fun and games. Three years ago, when she was just 7, she began hearing about the troubles her older sister, Ciel, was facing at recess at Hawkins Elementary School.
It seemed the playground had become more of a battleground: sporty kids playing soccer or football on the field, and exclusive cliques holding court on the jungle gym. Feeling unwelcome at either end, Ciel, then a fourth grader, found herself spending recess alone day after day. Though she wore a brave face at school, at home the tears would often flow.
The two girls shared a room, and Charlotte, then a first grader, lay in her matching twin bed and listened to her mother console and encourage her sister. She was confused and deeply affected by the toll the ordeal was taking on the person she idolized and considered her role model.
“I just couldn’t believe no one wanted to play with my sister, who was pretty much the greatest fourth grader ever,” she said.
Not one to see a problem and leave it without a solution, Charlotte approached her mother with an idea: “What if there was a way to make sure everyone had someone to play with at recess and no one was left behind? What if there was some sort of club?”
Her mother asked Charlotte to map out some detailed plans, so over the next year and a half, she brainstormed, researched, and fine tuned her ideas. When she entered the third grade, she was ready to present her plan to the school principal. And just like that, the Buddy Bench Club was born.
With kindness and leadership as the driving forces, Charlotte made a video to recruit students who were then tasked with creating and implementing inclusive games and activities on the playground. Through a rotation system, some kids would lead activities, while others would search the playground for anyone who looked like they needed a friend so that no one would ever be without a playmate.
The club took off, attracting students of all ages, and it didn’t take long before Charlotte started to see a tangible difference that extended beyond the jungle gym.
“Kids were excited about being in the club, and meeting people and becoming friends, and finding out they were going through the same things,” she said. “Some of the kids in my class who were at first very quiet started looking happier and participating more in class.”
The program eventually caught the eye of a top executive from Toys ‘R Us, who wanted to help Charlotte reach even more kids with a $10,000 donation on behalf of the retail giant to the Brighton Area Schools board to expand her program to the entire district.
The newly named Recess K.L.U.B. (Kindness and Leadership Uniting Buddies) will roll out to Hornung Elementary School and Maltby Intermediate School this fall, with an additional expansion to Spencer and Hilton elementary schools next year. The funds will purchase equipment and activities for each of the playgrounds, including a “meet up spot” bench and a plaque. Under Charlotte’s guidance, and with the help of lead teachers in each building, student mentors will be recruited and trained, and all participating kids will be required to take and adhere to a kindness pledge.
Charlotte says she feels proud she was able to turn a negative experience into something that will benefit kids for years to come. Wise far beyond her 10 years, she hopes other kids will look for opportunities to make positive changes in their world.
“Just try to realize what’s happening in your everyday life,” she advised. “Start small. But you really can make a difference.”