BY JENNIFER CROWLEY
Last Thursday evening the Wheatland-Chili Central School District held a special ceremony to honor the life of Kael Nicolosi through the dedication of a “buddy bench.” Kael tragically died in February 2017 when a distracted driver ran a stop sign and hit the car that eight year-old Kael and his mother, grandmother, and cousin were traveling in on the way to school one morning.
A buddy bench is a simple idea for reducing loneliness that some children may feel, particularly at recess. Should a child be looking for a playmate during recess, by taking a seat on the bench, other children become aware of his or her desire to play. Buddy benches have started to pick up in popularity these past few years as schools and communities seek to stem bullying behaviors and promote the idea of inclusion, a concept that Kael cared deeply about.
The dedication ceremony, which preceded the school’s annual “Welcome Back Picnic,” included short speeches by school officials and former teachers as well as Kael’s seven year-old sister Alexa and his mother Tiffany. There were many tears as Tiffany spoke about her son. “Kael was wise beyond his years. He lived and loved more in his short eight years than a lot of adults do in a lifetime. Kael was always able to find the good in everyone and everything.”
It was Kael’s optimism and joy that led Tiffany and husband Keith to found The Kael Nicolosi Foundation in their son’s memory. While The Foundation’s emphasis is on raising the profile of how dangerous distracted driving can be, the Nicolosi family wanted to approach the mission in a way that also would encourage friendship because according to Kael, a person could never have too many friends. As The Foundation gains momentum with fundraising, one objective will be to place more buddy benches around area towns and communities.
The purple and orange bench at T. J. Connor is in the shape of a book and is adorned with handprints from Kael’s classmates. The district parent-teacher association (PTA) was very involved in helping make the vision for a buddy bench in Kael’s honor a reality. According to PTA member Lisa Bates who spearheaded the project, the outpouring of support at each step of the way in getting the fiberglass book bench from Chicago to Scottsville was incredibly uplifting.
“Once we had the bench ordered, we needed to get it here. The husband of one of our active PTA members works for a transport service company called C&M Forwarding. The company happened to have a truck going through Chicago so they stopped for the bench and delivered it here to the school saving us all shipping fees. When it came time to purchase the paint – orange and purple, Kael’s favorite colors – Paint Masters in Brighton refused to charge us and seemed genuinely touched by the project. Next it was time to apply the paint and clear coat. Robert Wingender from Wing’s Automotive helped here and like Dana at Paint Masters, would not take any money for his services,” according to Bates.
Two other very involved people in the project were T. J. Connor employees. Art Teacher Julie Mazzota designed the bench and worked with Kael’s classmates to get it painted while Head of Maintenance Dennis Draper transported the bench to and from Wing’s Automotive and then subsequently installed it on the playground.
The dedication event was very emotional for the hundred-plus parents, students, teachers, community members and members of the Nicolosi family that came to watch the reveal. During Tiffany’s remarks she spoke of how opening iKON in May brought both her and Keith happiness, seeing how much the community has enjoyed having local ice cream again. “It seems that whatever Kael is a part of, there are enormous amounts of happiness and love,” she reflected. After acknowledging the deep gratitude for all who helped literally and figuratively bring the bench to the school, Tiffany implored the audience to continue spreading Kael’s light. Within moments his friends happily obliged and ran to the bench with infectious laughter and smiles.