'I've been lonely myself. I don't want others to feel that way,' said the seventh-grader from Fort Wayne, Indiana.
At the age of 8, Sammie Vance thought about an important question, "What breaks your heart?" "For me, it's seeing people who need a friend," the seventh grader from Fort Wayne, Indiana, told PEOPLE, "I've been lonely myself. I don't want others to feel that way." After she went to the summer Bible camp, she learned about buddy benches — a seat at a school playground, where a lonely child can sit, letting other kids know that they are in need of a friend. "I'm like, 'This would be really cool to have at my school,'" Sammie recalled.
“It’s nerve-wracking to go up to someone and ask them to play,” Sammie said, “because you don’t know what they’re going to say. When you sit on the Buddy Bench, it’s easy to notice that someone is sitting there. When other people know what it’s used for it’s easier because you know that someone is going to come and play with you.”
She spoke to her principal and shared the idea with PTA. They organized a community-wide event that collected 1,600 pounds of bottle caps, all recycled to make three buddy benches at her elementary school. It's called Sammie's Buddy Bench Project. She has since helped get over 200 benches created from bottle caps and these have been donated to schools and parks not just in the country but also in Mexico and Australia. "At the beginning of my project, I had absolutely no idea it would turn out anything like this," she said. "It amazes me and keeps me motivated to know that it is impacting people outside of the country as well."
“Her volunteerism got a lot of kids to get on board because they could bring in five bottle caps and feel like they were a part of something big. Sammie just uplifted kids, she’d tell them how cool it was that they brought caps in. She made them feel so inspired, (her volunteerism) is a piece of what will become history at Haley Elementary, and a piece of what she will probably forever continue to do in her adult life.”
Sammie has also written a book called "Inspire the World: A Kid's Journey to Making a Difference." Here, she inspires other kids to contribute to society. "She's always had a really big heart," said Sammie's mom, Heidi Vance, 40. "In second grade, when there was a little girl who didn't speak English in her class, Sammie came home and insisted on teaching herself Spanish, so she could communicate with the girl." "And at that point, I really started to see her heart for other people," Heidi continued, "and not wanting anybody to be left out."
The full-of-life pre-teen also spends some time producing a podcast from home called "Sammie Smiles." She not only chooses the guest list and then interviews guests via Zoom "who inspire me and who make me smile," she said, but also edits both the audio and video. She further plans to expand her project. "I just look forward to making a difference," she says, "and inspiring other people to make a difference."
“Bullying and loneliness is a really big deal and it needs to be changed. Even adults need Buddy Benches. Now that a lot of people are aware of it, they’ll want to make a difference."