According to Kathleen Donohue, principal of St. Joseph Elementary, the concept of a traveling bear began a year ago between staff from the American Indian school and its sister school, Gymnasium Leonium in Handrup, Germany.

“Each school is so different in complexity. Our school is a Native American school, the one in Houston is primarily Hispanic; Mississippi schools are a combination of Caucasian and African American, and the Wisconsin school is primarily middle class,” said Donohue. “We teleconference with all the schools run by the Priests of the Sacred Heart and thought that Benny would be a wonderful way to add more culture and communication between all of us.”

After a busy year playing basketball with sixth grade students in South Dakota, enjoying a sleepover with his new friends in Mississippi, and receiving handmade love notes from students at Our Lady of Guadalupe School in Houston, Benny met his new friends at St. Martin of Tours.

“The fourth graders at St. Martin of Tours enjoyed a game of Capture the Flag with Benny and took him to the science lab to watch the worm races. He saw that the worms ‘charged’ right over to the damp soil rather than the dry sand alternative,” according to a write-up in the St. Martin Parish bulletin, explaining the visit to parishioners. “The fourth graders gave Benny a miniature Badger helmet as a keepsake. Then Benny went to the third grade where he played at recess in the beautiful warm September sun. Benny also joined the third graders in the Lunar Olympics during science class. He received a green ‘peace’ arm band from the third graders to keep with his collection.”

Bringing Benny into the Sacred Heart family was another way for principals to teach their children about respecting different cultures and as well as the lives of those in their own backyard and community.

“We did pen pals with other schools, participated in the Battle of the Books between the schools, and often have our student councils talk over the phone. We frequently participate in the same service projects with some of the other schools,” said Jeanne Johnson, St. Martin principal. “We have also done small things such as food pantry collection together. ­ The point is that our kids are learning that service is who we are. We can’t all be (philanthropist) Jane Pettit and donate an ice rink, but we can get together and help our neighbor.”

Among the other collaborative efforts among the schools is a summer leadership institute. Each school sends four to six students to the host school where they meet in person and learn more about their cultural differences and similarities.

“Each activity that we do clicks a bit more and brings the students together to help them realize that they share more than they differ,” said Johnson.

Two years ago, Johnson escorted students to Chamberlain to the Indian school where they learned to appreciate their common ground as Americans rather than their cultural diversity between European Americans and American Indians.

“We went to Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Monument, and the Badlands,” said Johnson. “Mount Rushmore was a good place to start learning about our similarities.”

Sporting a tiny cheese head, Benny prepares to leave for Ireland with a box filled with souvenirs, clothing, and more memories than most bears of his stature. While the St. Martin de Tours elementary students will miss him, they are anxious to hear what Benny will be doing in Ireland.

“They wanted to take him everywhere they went,” said Johnson, adding. “And they loved the idea of Benny spending time with the other kids. He has been such a wonderful geographic and social learning experience for all of us.”