Under One Roof: "Bulldog Buddies" brings Friend Public Schools students and staff together with a 30-minute blast of fun

Under One Roof: "Bulldog Buddies" brings Friend Public Schools students and staff together with a 30-minute blast of fun

By Tyler Dahlgren

It’s the first Friday morning after the holiday break, and the hallways of Friend Public School sit quiet.

That’ll change when the clock hits 10:15. This is the calm before the storm.

Principal Liz Stutzman is in her office, gushing over the school’s “Bulldog Buddies” program that was developed and launched in October of 2018. She covers its history, the impact it’s made on the school’s culture, and the pure, unadulterated joy it gives to Bulldogs across the board.

There’s 28 groups of Bulldog Buddies, each led by a staff member and a mix-matched group of students K-12. They meet each month for 30 minutes to participate in a fun activity, which is usually devised to benefit their small, tight-knit community of around 1,000 people that sits 45 minutes southwest of Lincoln.

Then Stutzman picks up the phone, and announces the start of Bulldog Buddies over the intercom. Sometimes, she explains, seeing something in action is the only way to fully understand how special it is.

“My favorite part, and you’ll see it here soon, is watching 300 people, all of our staff and students, moving at the same time,” Stutzman said. “Just to watch their faces as they go to Bulldog Buddies and even afterwards when they leave Bulldog Buddies, it’s really something out of a novel. It’s so cool to see their excitement, from the littles to the bigs.”

At 10:15, the bell did indeed ring, and for half an hour, we did our best just to keep up. Today’s activity is Active Bingo, and there’s hustle and bustle in nearly every classroom and hallway in Friend’s two-story building. Bulldog Buddies breathes life into the school with a quick blast of old-fashioned fun, and Stutzman’s right; The kids absolutely love this.

“What it’s done for the school is created a more cohesive group and understanding and ability to work together as students and staff, who get to know different kids on different levels,” said Stutzman. “For the kids, they get to see the staff members in a different light. They’re playing board games with them, they’re doing jumping jacks and push-ups with them. It’s just fun, and what kid doesn’t look forward to 30 minutes of fun?”

Stutzman has implemented this program before in the previous districts she’s worked in. It was successful in Gretna, Seward and York. But those were K-5 elementary schools, and at Friend the entire district is under one roof. Because of that, connection and cohesion are important here. Stutzman saw an opportunity, and made a few special tweaks to her model.

“We decided to have every staff member involved, from all of our teachers to the cooks to the custodians, secretaries and administrators, and that’s what makes it so meaningful,” Stutzman said. “I always say the greatest thing about our district is having kids from three-years-old all the way up to 18-years-old here. And when a senior walks across the stage and graduates, every single staff member can say, ‘I had an impact on them, and they probably had an impact on me.’”

That’s the greatest thing about being in a K-12 building, Stutzman said. Relationships matter everywhere, but they’re essential here, and that extends into the community, too. The town’s police officer, for example, never misses a Bulldog Buddies. In fact, he passed by Stutzman’s office and waved just before she came over the intercom.

“It’s a good way to bring people together in the community and in our school,” said eighth-grader Elijah Oceguera.

The activities change each month. The Bulldog Buddies have made Valentine’s Day cards for residents of Friend’s Friendship Terrace, the town’s assisted living facility. Firefighters, police officers and EMTs receive cards too. They do something special for Veterans each Veteran’s Day and fill out March Madness brackets with their buddies each spring. 

“Over all the years, certain things have stayed the same,” Stutzman said. “We always do a senior scavenger hunt at the end of the year, and we always start with Active Bingo at the beginning, which is an all-time favorite. The kids love when we do board games. One of my favorite things is seeing how the older students interact with the younger ones, and how the younger students embrace the kindergarteners coming into our school.”

It’s tricky at times, coming up with a 30-minute activity that will be enjoyable both for 18-year-old seniors and five-year-old kindergarteners, but excitement for Bulldog Buddies seems to never wane. 

“It’s a good way to interact and get to know the younger students in the school,” said freshman Grady Bresson. “They’re energetic, and definitely entertaining to spend time with.”

Sophomore Dylen Collier said spending time with teachers you wouldn’t cross paths with during a regular school day is one of the perks of Bulldog Buddies. Stutzman echoed that, saying she’s heard from elementary teachers who appreciate regularly seeing former students and the chance to marvel at the people they’ve grown into. The time together is cherished, by both sides.

For Stutzman, seeing the upperclassmen who’ve been in “Buddies” since seventh or eighth-grade take ownership of the program is unbelievably rewarding. It happens organically, too.

“I love seeing the older kids take ownership, because some of them have little siblings, but some of them don’t,” she said. “That’s such a fun part of this, that they genuinely enjoy helping the adults run a group. Or, if there’s a substitute, they’ll say ‘I got this. I know what to do. I know where everything is.’ It’s just exciting to see them mold into leaders in a smaller setting where they feel comfortable.”

One unintended byproduct of Bulldog Buddies in particular caught Stutzman by surprise. Those 30 minutes each month have actually opened some students’ eyes to the teaching profession.

“It’s kind of a hidden thing that’s happened, where these high school kids realize how good they are with kids and how much of an impact their time with them can make, and that drives them into education or into working with kids,” Stutzman explained. “The main goal was to have littles with bigs, and to have the younger students look up to the older students as role models. It’s fun to watch them at basketball games or volleyball games. They’ll point to the court and excitedly announce ‘Hey, they’re in my Buddies!’”

As a sophomore, Collier is gladly stepping into that leadership role.

“It’s so cool just hearing them say ‘Oh, I get to be with the big kids,’” she said. “It’s just fun making them happy and being there with them.”

It’s 10:40 in the morning, and this month’s meeting is winding down. The youngest student in Stutzman's group hits a Bingo and, as her prize, gets to pick how her group will spend the next 60 seconds.

“I want to give everybody a hug,” she said, before proceeding to do so.

The high school kids don’t even try to suppress their smiles. How could they?

“We always get to do really fun activities,” first-grader Lorelle Buresh tells me. “Seeing everyone here together is why I love Bulldog Buddies.”

Thirty minutes flies by fast, but the relationships made in these hallways and classrooms will carry on, from year to year.

The memories? Those will last forever.