Lehi Tonga Jr. was a student at Holly Grove Middle School when his classmates started calling him “big head” and “mega mind,” teasing him about his looks.
What started off as a joke quickly began occurring every day, making Tonga feel singled out and afraid to ask for help. He wished it would stop but instead, he said it followed him into high school.
“It’s a horrible feeling,” said Tonga, now 16. “You just feel belittled and worthless.”
Now a sophomore at Holly Springs High School, Tonga’s experiences have inspired him to raise awareness about bullying and work to put a stop to it, particularly among young children.
Tonga, a soon-to-be Eagle Scout with Troop 731, built two “buddy benches” for his Eagle Scout project and donated them to Holly Grove Elementary School, where he attended. Both benches reflect the school’s colors of orange and purple and mascot – a hedgehog.
“If you’re a student there and you are ever feeling lonely or sad, you can go sit on those benches,” Tonga said.
If students see a classmate at the benches, he encourages them to introduce themselves and make new friends.
“I think that’s very important, because bullying starts at a young age,” he said. “I would like that to stop. I know the pain of what these little kids could be feeling.”
To become an Eagle Scout, Boy Scouts must earn 21 merit badges, including some in first aid, citizenship in the community and communication, and complete an Eagle Scout Service Project.
Tonga, who joined the Boy Scouts when he was around 8 years old, was searching online for project ideas when he stumbled upon the buddy benches.
He said his experience with bullying drew him to the project, which he completed in about four hours with the help of 13 of his fellow Scouts.
Even though he now is in high school and plays with multiple sports teams, including basketball, track and football, Tonga said bullying still is a problem, although it occurs less often for him now than it did in middle school.
About 35 Holly Grove Elementary School first-graders greeted Tonga Friday, March 11, when he delivered the benches to the community garden next to the school off Avent Ferry Road. Mayor Dick Sears and several school administrators, including Principal Kathy Knezevic, also attended the event.
“It’s just a good visual for kids to know that there’s a safe place to go on the playground,” said Mike Przybowski, a Holly Grove Elementary school counselor. “We have a very safe school here anyway, but you know problems sometimes go unnoticed, and it helps to gain awareness of it.”
Several of the first-graders, including Raegan Herring and Mia Anderson, enjoyed seeing their school’s colors incorporated into the project.
“I like that they’re Holly Grove spirit,” Herring said. “They have our orange and purple colors, and I like that he cares about other people.”
Sears presented Tonga and his mother, Lori Tonga, with a Holly Springs Mayor’s Anti-Bullying Campaign ribbon and wristband.
Sears created the Holly Springs Mayor’s Anti-Bullying Campaign in early 2014 to raise awareness about bullying and to provide Holly Springs parents and children the tools they need to respond to it.
“Bullying starts at a very young age, but it also goes through adulthood,” he said. “We are available to anybody and everybody who has been bullied and needs help or suggestions ... The hardest part, but the most important part, is to make sure that everybody knows that bullying is still a problem.”
The group now has more than 100 members of all ages, including children, psychologists and school counselors who are dedicated to helping others those who are being bullied.
“This is the first time I think somebody outside of the group has done something like this,” Sears said, referring to Tonga’s project.
Tonga will find out if he has received the green light to become an Eagle Scout in April. While he is not sure what the outcome will be, he is glad his project could make a difference.
“It feels great,” he said. “I’m very proud of everything that I’ve accomplished.”
Kathryn Trogdon: 919-460-2608, @KTrogdon