The Journal Gazette
Thursday, April 08, 2021 1:00 am

Benches get 'Awesome' attention

12-year-old's buddy project debuts on TV

ASHLEY SLOBODA | The Journal Gazette

Sammie Vance felt a mix of emotions Wednesday night at Promenade Park, where months earlier she created plastic cap murals and unveiled a new buddy bench alongside cast members of a nationwide television show.

Sammie, a 12-year-old Blackhawk Middle School sixth grader, was about to see the result of those few days of filming for “Operation Awesome” in a prime-time premiere on BYUtv. The non-commercial network is owned and operated by Brigham Young University in Utah and focuses on inspiring and uplifting entertainment.

“I'm both excited and nervous,” Sammie said as guests for her in-person watch party began arriving before sunset.

“Operation Awesome” features kids and their good works. Sammie's episode, “Kindness Counts,” introduces viewers to her buddy bench efforts, which began when she was an 8-year-old incoming third grader.

Buddy benches are made from recycled plastic bottle caps and give lonely or shy children a place to sit and signal their desire to make new friends.

“I was honored to be featured and glad the show came to Fort Wayne,” Sammie said in a statement before the watch party. “It was an amazing experience, and I can't wait for everyone to see the hard work we did and the fun we had.”

The Park Foundation Pavilion at Promenade Park hosted the private watch party, an apt setting given that the downtown venue provided much of the episode's setting.

The almost hourlong video shows the making of the buddy bench at Promenade Park and the beginnings of a community art project called Caps with a Cause.

The TV show also highlighted other local landmarks, including the rivers and Parkview Field, where the cast met TinCaps President Mike Nutter.

Sammie, who watched herself on screen from the front row, said she hopes the episode inspires people as much as the show's other episodes inspired her.

She got a round of applause from the audience and two thumbs up from her mother, Heidi Vance, once the episode ended.

“I loved it,” Vance said. “It made me very proud to know that her mission is spreading.”

Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation has plans to make that happen. The department and Sammie collected enough caps last year to build 11 benches in city parks, with the first bench planned for Hamilton Park, according to a news release.

Additionally, Riverfront Fort Wayne is collaborating with Sammie on Caps with a Cause, which turns plastic bottle caps and lids into colorful murals. The public can participate from 1 to 3 p.m. April 25 at Promenade Park.

Megan Butler, Riverfront Fort Wayne's program and events manager, explained in a statement the value of such programming.

“These types of collaborative community projects celebrating the environment, youth and the community continue to illustrate the mission and vision of Riverfront Fort Wayne to deliver exciting experiences to all members of our community and to remain an inclusive project which seeks continued input as each person makes the riverfront their own,” Butler said.

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