Channing Hall students honor classmate’s memory with buddy bench
Greg Hollenbach thanks Channing Hall students for dedicating a buddy bench in memory of his late son, Tomas, who had beenwas a student at the school. (Julie Slama/City Journals)
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Five and a half years ago, fourth-grader Tomas Hollenbach died of brain stem glioma, a form of brain cancer. During what would have been his eighth-grade graduation last spring, his classmates remembered him. This spring, they presented a buddy bench in his memory.
“This is really appropriate for Tomas and he was everyone’s friend,” friend Daniel Gee said. “He was never judgmental. He was always willing to talk to people, to make new friends. He would have liked the idea of forming more friends, of not having bullies. The biggest lesson I learned from Tomas was not to judge people.”
Students from the current upper grades who remembered Tomas gathered with teachers, classmates and his family to dedicate the bench. His brother, Victor, cut the ceremonial ribbon.
Channing Hall Head of School Heather Shepherd took those gathered back to the day when she shared the news of his death with her school. She reminded them that his six-month prognosis lasted almost two years.
“Not all of you knew him, but almost everyone knew of him,” she said. “He embodied our IB (international baccalaureate) attitudes and loved his school and his community.”
She also shared that his mother, Dulce, wrote a letter to other parents. She wrote: “He is very compassionate and willing to help everyone who needed help; we probably could fill many sheets of paper with stories about his compassion and wise heart.”
For example, it was Tomas who started the school’s annual participation in Operation Christmas Child, where each November, students fill shoeboxes with personal hygiene items, school supplies and small toys before gift wrapping them to send to children in need. His own birthday party in third grade was dedicated to organizing and donating shoeboxes for the project.
Tomas created a lemonade stand to help pay for the shipping of the boxes to other countries. That tradition continues every August by friends and family in the community.
He also helped make blankets for children at the Road Home shelter as part of Project Linus during third grade.
“It’s very fun to do stuff for other people, to put a smile on their face and make them happy,” Tomas said about Operation Christmas Child and making blankets for other children. “It’s what I like to do now — make others feel good.”
Tomas also passed out friendship bracelets, which classmate Madi Goddard still wears in remembrance of Tomas’ kindness.
“We’d see him in the hall and there was always a wave of compassion and love with him,” she said. “Even in a brief moment, you knew he was a friend.”
After beating the odds and attending school for more than a year after being diagnosed, 10-year-old Tomas found it more difficult to go to school by November of his fourth-grade year, his father, Greg, said.
“He’d still want to be there, still want to learn,” he said. “He’d dress in his uniform and Skype the teacher and class. He loved school.”
In his absence, a stuffed monkey sat in his seat. He remained in the class, even after his Nov. 19, 2011 death, sitting in Tomas’ honor, his father said.
At graduation, the monkey reappeared, carried in by his friend, Garrett Warr.
“The monkey returned to graduate. Tomas is always in our hearts and it’s touching that this bench was donated by his class so he will always be remembered,” Shepherd said.
Tomas’ father agrees. “It’s a wonderful honor. He was so humble, he probably would have been embarrassed about it, but it’s a beautiful legacy.”