Fort Wayne 3rd-grader to be interviewed on NBC’s ‘Today’ show

Sammie Vance, 9, sits on one of the Buddy Benches at her school, Haley Elementary in Fort Wayne. Sammie is scheduled to be interviewed May 22 on the "Today" show about her project to collect plastic lids to be recycled into Buddy Benches for the school. (By Kevin Kilbane of News-Sentinel.com)

EDITOR’S NOTE: The original date of Sammie Vance’s appearance on the “Today” show has been changed to Thursday, May 24. We updated the date and broadcast information in the story below. Rather than be interviewed live Tuesday, Sammie’s interview will be recorded and shown during the 10-11 a.m. hour Thursday, Sammie’s mother, Heidi Vance, said.

Fort Wayne third-grader Sammie Vance set out to change the world, and her progress has contributed to her making an appearance May 24 on the NBC television network’s “Today” morning show.

After learning about Buddy Benches during her Vacation Bible School program last summer at Blackhawk Ministries, Sammie, now 9, came home and told her mom she wanted to get one for her school, Haley Elementary in northeast Fort Wayne.

“I’m lonely sometimes, and I do see other kids who are lonely,” Sammie said last week.

What started as an effort to get one Buddy Bench for her school has exploded, with people donating enough for three benches at Haley Elementary and Sammie’s approach spreading to other schools in Fort Wayne and across the country.

Sammie will be interviewed about her project during the “Today” show’s “Everyone has a Story” segment, her mother, Heidi, said. “Today” show staff contacted the family after Heidi Vance sent them information about her daughter and her Buddy Benches project.

NBC broadcasts “Today,” which airs locally from 7 to 9 a.m. weekdays on Fort Wayne’s NBC, Channel 21.2. Sammie’s interview now is scheduled to be recorded in advance and broadcast during the Kathy Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb hour from 10 to 11 a.m. Thursday, Heidi Vance said.

Sammie said she’s only feeling one kind of anxious about being on the show.

“I’m really anxious to do it,” said Sammie, who will travel there with her mother while her dad and three siblings likely will stay home.

“I’ve been on TV a lot,” Sammie said, including some previous coverage by Fort Wayne TV stations.

She’s also excited because an American Girl doll store is located across the street from the “Today” studios. Sammie also hopes to try New York pizza and visit the Statue of Liberty.

GETTING STARTED

When Sammie started her project, she said she had two goals:

• For every school to get a Buddy Bench

• For every child to know he or she can make a difference, and that you don’t have to be an adult to do that.

The Buddy Bench concept has been around for at least several years.

Children who feel left out or lonely can sit on the Buddy Bench to let other children know they would like to join in playing with someone else.

In August 2017, the AWS Foundation announced it planned to give 10 Buddy Benches to area schools in celebration of the foundation’s 10th anniversary, The News-Sentinel reported at that time. Each Buddy Bench featured a design created by a local artist.

The foundation planned to donate Buddy Benches to Forest Park, Haley, Fairfield and Holland elementary schools and Memorial Park Middle School in the Fort Wayne Community Schools system, the announcement said. Other schools scheduled to receive a Buddy Bench included Heritage Elementary near Monroeville, Little Turtle Elementary in Columbia City, Adams Central Elementary in Monroe, McKenney-Harrison Elementary in Auburn, and Bluffton-Harrison Elementary in Bluffton.

When Sammie asked about getting a Buddy Bench for her school, Heidi Vance’s initial investigation found sturdy benches cost about $900 each. However, additional searching led her to Green Tree Plastics in Evansville, which makes benches and other outdoor furniture from recycled plastic bottle and container lids and sells its benches for $225. For every bench ordered, the buyer also has to provide about 400 pounds of recycled plastic lids — the amount needed to make a bench.

Sammie asked her school principal if she could launch a project to get a Buddy Bench for Haley. He said yes, and she went all-out to get the bench.

Sammie asked Haley students to collect plastic lids at home and to bring them to school. She collected lids at events, such as at the finish of the Fort4Fitness runs. She contacted local businesses, such as pharmacies, to ask them to collect plastic lids for her and created a comic strip-style sign to explain the project.

Sammie also received help from other groups, such as her Girl Scouts troop and zookeepers at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo.

QUICK RESULTS

She and her family set up a donation drum at her school for students to deposit their plastic lids.

“We got it so fast, we were emptying the drum about every couple of days,” Heidi Vance said.

All of the lids also had to be sorted to clean out any unaccepted items, such as plastic silverware. Those helping the Vance family with sorting included students at Haley Elementary and Bishop Luers High School.

Within two months, they had collected more than 2,000 pounds of plastic lids, Heidi Vance said. That total provided enough plastic for them to get three Buddy Benches for Sammie’s school and to donate about 800 pounds of lids to help other schools that have started their own projects.

Biggby Coffee in Georgetown Square, which had been involved in the project, paid for the $225 cost of one Buddy Bench for Haley Elementary. An anonymous donor paid for the second bench and the combined total of many smaller donations paid for the third bench, Heidi Vance said.

The benches were installed in mid-November, she said.

One Buddy Bench is located on the playground for kindergarten through grade 2, one is on the playground for grades 3-5, and the third is located where the car riders come out of the building to go home, Sammie said.

“They do use it a lot,” she said of the benches. “I can tell they really like it because they tell me, “Good job,” a lot.”

HELPING OTHERS

Seven to 10 schools in Fort Wayne now are collecting plastic lids to get a Buddy Bench, Heidi Vance said. The Vances also know of schools in Ohio, Florida, New York and North Carolina that heard about Sammie’s project and have started Buddy Bench projects of their own.

Sammie has stopped collecting plastic lids, but she’s still trying to help others get Buddy Benches for their school.

She goes and speaks to parent-teacher organizations at other schools to share information about how to collect plastic lids to get a Buddy Bench. Her mother also shares how they did it on the Facebook group Sammie’s Buddy Bench Project; you have to ask to join the group.

Videos about Sammie’s project and news reports about it still spread the word online. Sammie even received shout-outs on social media from actresses Reese Witherspoon and Maureen McCormick (“The Brady Bunch”) after each heard about her project.

What has Sammie enjoyed most: “Probably everything,” she said, especially getting the community involved and meeting new people.

“Anybody can do it,” she and her mother said.

COMMENTS