This is the story of a thoughtful young student, a fondly remembered elementary teacher and a talented, ambitious Eagle Scout, and how their paths crossed at just the right time to be part of a special project on the Central Elementary playground in Nevada.
The special project includes two buddy benches and a gazebo that covers one of them on the Central Elementary playground. Students and staff took time on the first day of school, Aug. 23, to dedicate them.
To understand the project, we must first be introduced to Miles Engstrom, 10, who is now a fifth-grader in the Nevada School District. Engstrom is responsible for the formation, while he was at the school, of an “empathy group.”
“I wanted to (have the group) because the community needs more empathy in it,” said the articulate Engstrom as he, just last week, paid a visit to the playground that he used to play on daily.
“People here sometimes don’t want to listen. And (some) people are very sad. But people get scared of them (the sad ones) and they shouldn’t; they just need help, but instead people walk away,” he said. “I’m one of those people who think about saving the world, and I like it when people don’t judge people by what they look like. That’s the reason I leave my hair long. I’ve been called a girl about a thousand times, and I’m OK with it… People are learning (about him),” he said. And if people are crying (or lonely), he said people should try to learn about them and help them.
He wanted to have an empathy group to try to get kids in school to think about others and how they might feel if they had no friends or felt different. Counselor Erin Murphy helped with the group, which started, Engstrom said, with about 30 interested students, and whittled down to about half that over the course of time, with the students who were really committed to its success sticking with it.
Murphy said the group talked a lot about “kindness in action” and what they could do to help show that at the school. Of the ideas that were proposed, they took a vote and having two buddy benches on the playground was the winning idea.
Engstrom, while sitting on the buddy bench at the north end of the large playground, said for him, the bench is a place “where if someone is looking for someone … they can come and sit on the bench. Only one person can be on the bench… and if two people are on there, the first person should have a friend now that they can be with,” he explained. “If it turns out that you’ve made a friend, then it turns out good.”
Since he has moved on to the middle school this year, he admitted, “I don’t know if this (bench) has helped anybody yet.”
He’s pleased with how the benches, made by high school instructor Greg Baethke’s woods classes, turned out. The handprints in purple are the prints of the members of the elementary empathy group. “We wanted them to look very different than the other benches on the playground,” Engstrom said.
One thing Engstrom, the son of Tracie and Fred Engstrom, pointed out was that he doesn’t seek the limelight. “I’m not one of those people who seeks attention. If I can help someone, I will, and I hope (these benches) will help people.”
Helen Rehor, a much-loved teacher in the history of Central Elementary School, died in December of 2016.
Her family was giving part of her memorial funds to the elementary school to buy books. “We were reaching out to them, and in turn, they reached out to us and said they were buying two buddy benches and wanted to have one in honor of our mom,” said Nancy Rehor, Helen’s daughter and a 1977 graduate of Nevada High School.
The family was very honored.
“The funny thing is, I think she would have really loved that (a memorial for her) was on the playground, because she did lots of recess duty and spent a lot of time with all the kids there (on the playground),” said Nancy, who now lives in Palm Harbor, Fla.
“My mother,” she continued, “was called a ‘peacemaker.’ She just loved everybody.” At the end of the school days, Mrs. Rehor often used to say, “I love you” to her students as they were leaving. So to have a buddy bench that says on it, “A friend to all,” Nancy said, “I think that’s perfect for her.”
Mrs. Rehor’s teaching career started at Allison-Bristow Schools right after she finished college at Simpson. She was teaching at the junior high level there and also doing the theater for the school. She next taught at Pleasantville for a little while, then she came to Nevada. “They (Helen and Rolland Rehor) moved to Nevada the day I was born in 1958,” Nancy said. “Dad worked as an electrician for Iowa State.”
In addition to Nancy, the Rehors raised two boys, Brad, a 1972 graduate of Nevada who sadly passed away in 2006; and Jim, a 1974 graduate of Nevada, who lives in Kansas City. Jim made a trip back for the dedication, which Nancy felt badly that she could not attend. Her own children were visiting her in Florida. “I was so sick that I could not be there, but I remember my mother would say, you need to be with your family.”
Thankfully, Jim was joined by several family members and friends for the first-day-of-school dedication of Helen’s bench, which sits under a gazebo at the south side of the playground.
Helen taught at Nevada Elementary School for most of her 33-year teaching career. She impacted the lives of many of her students, which the family once calculated as being a little over 800. “I was in second grade when she taught second grade,” Nancy said, “and a lot of my friends would come up to me and say, ‘Your mother was my favorite teacher.’ I would tell her that and she’d say, ‘They’re just saying that because you’re my daughter.’ But she was, she was so many kids’ favorite teacher.” Nancy believes it’s because her mother loved to make learning fun, like when she had her students make puppets out of styrofoam balls and paper towel rods and have puppet shows to help learn their reading, writing and speech skills. “Everyone really looked forward to that.”
The idea of the buddy bench is something her mother would have championed, Nancy believes. “Because that’s what she would want … for everybody to get along. She had so much faith, she was such a strong Christian … I miss her so much, and I’d want her to be proud of this.”
The Eagle Scout
Nevada High School senior Andrew Barloon was looking for an Eagle Scout project. “A requirement for the rank of Eagle is to plan, fundraise and carry out a service project that benefits the community or an organization within the community,” he explained.
Last March, he started work to build a gazebo on the elementary playground that would provide shade to one of the school’s new buddy benches. It turns out that gazebo covers the bench that honors Helen Rehor.
The construction phase of the project started in late June and was finished by mid-July. “I had numerous volunteers from my troop, as well as friends and family,” he said. “Some people who helped me the most were Mrs. deNeui (elementary principal), who was my contact with the school, and Mr. Baethke, who helped me with materials and construction. Most of my funding was also raised from many donations from community members and local businesses.”
Part of the enjoyment of the project, Barloon said, was that it allowed him the opportunity to be back on his elementary school playground. “While I was at Central, there was a gazebo on the playground that served as a meeting place during recess, and I wanted to re-create that space after it was torn down.”
On the first day of school this year, Barloon was present for the dedication of the gazebo and buddy benches. “I was able to give a short speech about being an Eagle Scout and what that means, as well as talk a little bit about what Scouts is all about.” He enjoyed the moment, he said, because he was able to see the appreciation for the project from the kids and school staff, as well as from the family members who were gathered to remember Mrs. Rehor.
“I loved seeing an idea of mine come to life and impact people in a positive way. I hope the gazebo becomes a long-lasting and meaningful addition to Central’s Playground.