OWINGS, Md. - A special Maryland teenager with autism has found a unique way to help others "see the light" when it comes to autism awareness.
Tory Ridgeway, a 14-year-old Eagle Scout, gave Windy Hill Elementary School in Owings--where he was once a student--a special gift: a bright blue bench. But it's not just any bench. It's a buddy bench.
Tory made the bench to help kids who sometimes feel alone and might be subject to bullying, like he once was.
"I did not want other kids to have to go through that because that is not fun," Tory explained. "It is not fun."
He built the bench as part of his Eagle Scout project.
"I decided to help children with disabilities or people who couldn't socialize well in the community by building a buddy bench so they didn't have to go through what I went through," he said.
Tory's family lives in Prince George's County, but he had trouble finding the right fit in that school system. His mother, Vanessa, enrolled Tory at Windy Hill, which is in Calvert County, when he was in the fourth grade. There, he found a home.
"They knew that I had autism and they tried to work around that, sort of," Tory said. "They understood what was happening in here."
"They treated us as a team," his mother recalled. "They listened to me. They looked at Tory as an individual. They looked at him as a child who needed help. They placed him into a classroom that was best fit for him-- not most convenient for them."
Tory dedicated his buddy bench to his fourth grade teacher, Cara Quade, who was beyond touched.
"It definitely makes me feel like what we do every day does make a difference," Quade said. "I feel like when students can come to school and feel safe and feel loved, that they can learn."
Tory's buddy bench serves a purpose for the children on the playground.
"If they don't have a friend or if they're having problems, they can come sit here and a friend will come and talk with them or bring them into their game," Quade said.
"I can't remember a single time when I was bullied here," Tory added.
While we were interviewing Tory, we saw what the bench can do when one little girl sat down on it, and a few minutes later, another came running up to her, and soon, they were playing together.
"It's nice," Tory said. "Good to know people are actually using it. And they're running off and playing together."
The bench is adorned with handprints and words of inspiration, like, "be happy," and "show respect, not hate."
"Let your light shine, so be yourself. I wasn't letting my light shine before I came here," Tory said. "I felt like I couldn't."