Almost every day, Ellen Rummel walks by a bench at Westside Elementary School. Some time has passed now, seasons have turned, but Ellen still remembers her son's words when she walks past this bench.
"Mom, if there's a kid on the playground that doesn't have a friend, I'm gonna be their friend."
Ellen hopes the kindness of her son Zach never disappears.
Zach Rummel, a 9-year-old student at Westside, died from a brain tumor Nov 16, 2015. In his honor, Westside placed a buddy bench on the playground this summer in hopes that students never have to go without a friend.
"I'm just proud of everything he went through," Ellen said. "It's sad, but I'm so proud that he can give back. His short life had meaning. It's a way for him to give back and keep his memory alive."
Zach was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2015 when he was a third-grader. Things weren't easy, but Zach maintained a good attitude through the six months of radiation as well as chemotherapy.
"He's the toughest kid I know," Ellen said. "He never felt sorry for himself. He was always worrying about others. He was just an amazing kid."
Ten months after the diagnosis, Zach died.
Cary Rummel, Zach's father, and Ellen both expressed appreciation for what West Fargo Public Schools did for their family. They are thankful not only for the bench but also for their support through the cancer treatment for Zach and their daughter, Alexa, who's now a 14-year-old freshman at West Fargo High.
Cary credited Westside Principal Tabatha Joyce for helping to get the concept for the buddy bench going.
"The idea of the buddy bench represents Zach in so many ways," Cary wrote in an email. "He was a kind, caring and compassionate little boy who always cared for others. I'm so proud of Zachary and Westside. My son made such a positive impact on so many and the school has been an incredible support system."
Westside school councilor Joseph Paulus, who saw a buddy bench used when he worked in Oakes, said these benches are for students who may not have a buddy to play with. Other students will know they are looking for someone to play with and can openly approach anyone sitting on the bench to join them.
"It creates a sense of community on the playground," Paulus said. "It represents an overall sense of kindness and compassion."
The bench has a Superman logo with a Z instead of an S that was used during Zach's fundraiser campaign. The bench has the words "Zach's Buddy Bench" and "Be Kind, Be Brave" on the backrest. Built by Dakota Fence, the bench is green, which was Zach's favorite color.
"This student was all about kindness, and this is just a really good representation and a really good way to honor the student because he really stood for kindness," Paulus said. "So it's cool to see this buddy bench be something bigger than just the bench."
With the help of their fourth-grade teacher, some of Zach's best friends and former classmates, Taylor Gatzke, Lainey Graening and Max Horn made a video to remember Zach and to tell students about the bench.
"They can see what the buddy bench stands for and how to use it," said Paulus, who never met Zach but has heard plenty about him. "It's really about kindness, community and showing our school is one big family. It's really neat to honor Zach, because from my understanding, that's what he stood for was kindness."
Before any of the students saw the video, Paulus wanted Ellen and Cary, who asked for the video in the first place, to see it first.
They loved it.
"It's just perfect because of the meaning behind the buddy bench," Ellen said. "We wanted to give something back to the school for the kids to enjoy."
Ellen said all of his classmates, friends, teachers and family members say the same thing about Zach-he was known for being kind to others. The buddy bench is just a way to make sure that when people walk by, that kindness isn't lost.
"He had a heart of gold," Ellen said. "We're never going to forget him."