Tiny girl brings big dream of ending bullying to area schools

Photo Caption: Acacia “Tiny” Woodley, 12, addresses students at St. Patrick School in Washington on Nov. 3. She spoke of self-esteem, bullying, and explained the use of “friendship benches” (seen at left).

By: By Tom Dermody

Bullying is a big problem in today’s society.

A tiny girl from Florida brought her simple solution to three Catholic schools in the Diocese of Peoria on Monday, Nov. 3.

Acacia “Tiny” Woodley spoke at the schools — St. Patrick in Washington, St. Thomas the Apostle, Peoria Heights, and St. Vincent de Paul, Peoria — during assemblies at which the schools were presented a “friendship bench” for their respective campuses.

“A friendship bench is a very special bench that goes in a school playground or common area,” explained Woodley, 12, who was born without complete arms and stands but 4 feet 7 inches tall. “Anytime anyone is having a bad day — maybe someone has said something mean or they are new to school and don’t know anyone — they can sit on the bench and it lets others know they need a friend to talk to or play with.”

Woodley has a big dream: To place friendship benches in every school in the United States and Canada. The three presented Monday were the first of 17 benches projected to be given to area Catholic schools through the financial support of Sherman’s, Inc., which has stores in the Peoria, Bloomington/Normal, and LaSalle-Peru areas.

Paul and Bridget Sherman are members of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Peoria Heights.

The benches come with oil-based markers for decoration by each school. Words such as “Compassion,” “Diversity,” and “Understanding” are usually written on the slats.

Woodley, who was accompanied on her trip to central Illinois by her mother, Amber Riddle, told the students the idea for the benches came to her when a girl in her class at a new school was mean to her at age 10.

“I have always had a lot of people stare at me because of my arms, but no one had ever been intentionally mean until I moved to this school,” she said. Woodley invited the girl to her home, and discovered the mean girl “was going through some really bad stuff at home.” Woodley realized that not only kids who are bullied need help, but the so-called bullies as well.

Her 20-minute address at each school was punctuated with positive messages and assurances that no matter what their concerns, “there is someone else out there that understands or know what it feels like.”

At St. Patrick School, the assembly ended with the students reciting for Woodley a prayer they offer after lunch each day before heading to the playground. The prayer mirrored her message and adds a faith element:

“Dear Jesus,” the prayer began, “as we go out for recess today, help everyone have fun. Help us to follow the playground rules, keep us safe, and protect us from unkind words and actions. If we see someone who feels sad, alone, or excluded from the group, help us to make them feel welcome. May our time together at recess and throughout the day be full of joy and happy memories. Amen.”

The next schools scheduled to receive the benches are Holy Trinity, Bloomington, in January and Holy Family, Peoria, in February.

EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information on Acacia and her dream, visit TinyGirlBigDream.org.

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