The Bench Project with guest Beth Romanowski

Connection is a very powerful tool in our mental health wellness toolboxes. This week, Tina and Serena welcome guest Beth Romanoski to talk about a project that began very organically in their family to get them through some hard times. The Bench Project has spread throughout the country allowing people to connect over common feelings, gratitude, and even leaving some heavy things. Her mission is to inspire and nurture the human spirit by creating a connection through a shared experience one bench at a time. Listen in to this connective conversation!

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Tina: Hey everyone, I'm Tina.

Serena: And I'm Serena, and we are the Mental Health Mamas.

Tina: Welcome to no need to explain. We are so glad you're here.

Serena: First, as always, a quick disclaimer.

Tina: We come to you not as mental health professionals

or experts in the field, but rather as parents with lived experience

who are on a mission to normalize the conversation around mental health.

Serena: If you or someone you love is experiencing a mental health crisis, please seek professional support. You'll find a variety of resources in our show notes and on our website, no need to explain

Tina: So there's no doubt that people's experience with COVID has been quite all over the board, right? Depending on your life's circumstances, where you live, your profession, and we could go on and on. But one of the commonalities we've heard over and over again

is that people really struggled with a sense of isolation and a real lack of connection.

Serena: Right, right.

Serena: So even though many of us were able to connect virtually

to one another, which was amazing that we had that, it still wasn't the same as connecting in person. So today we've invited a guest to join us

to talk about a unique way to connect with one another which kind of grew during COVID and it continues to connect people across region and time.

Tina: Beth Romanowski is the founder of The Bench Project, which was born as a simple way to find rest on a walk and has grown in amazing ways across the United States. Beth, welcome to the podcast.

Beth: Thank you, you know what? I love your mission with this podcast

because normalizing mental wellness is so important and not just for mamas, but for our families, for sure.

Serena: Absolutely. Yeah, so let's start by talking about the beginnings

of the bench project. So why don't you tell us what it is first and then maybe what inspired you to start it?

Beth: Well, those two things pretty much go hand in hand actually.

So I didn't really know I was starting it when we started it.

Serena: Okay

Beth: But back in 2013, my husband and I were married 20 years

and we had originally gotten married in Hawaii. So we always said, we're going to go back and take the kids and, you know, their significant others, whatever. And, you know, 2013 came and we literally couldn't get out of our own way, you know, that happens. You know, things seem to be more important and, you know, Lenny couldn't leave work for that long and some of the kids were in college. So we live on a farm in Northeastern Pennsylvania and we have 110 acres and we have a three mile walking path through the woods and the fields and by the pond. And we walk frequently. So I've always said when we walk,

this would be a great place for a bench. You know, whether it was at the top of the hill or overlooking the field or just like a really

beautiful, reflective place. So I thought, you know what? I think I want to put 20 benches out. I've always had a thing for benches. You know, I think the benches bring you back to a simpler time, you know, when people sat and they really had time to like do nothing.

So I actually got 20 benches. Most of them were repurposed, you know,

I love giving new life to someone's old things. So I found some at garage sales, yard sales, people gave them to me. I have one that was my mom's and we placed them on the trail in specific locations that, you know, really meant something to me. So once we did that, I was like, wow, this is good. But, you know, at that point in my life, I was really thinking a lot about legacy and family and like how am I going to be remembered? And I was also getting into journaling at that point

and realizing how important it was for me and thinking about like what if somebody's reading what I've written like 20 years later?

Like how cool would that be, right? So I decided to put a journal in a pen in a weatherproof bag or box on each bench with some colored pencils and pens and sat down. And I wrote our story of why I decided to do this, wrote why I chose this location and then wrote how I felt, giving permission for anyone that sat to do the same. So whether you're writing something that's beautiful and inspiring or something heavy that you need to stop carrying, either way, it felt good to leave it at the bench.

Tina: Yes.

Beth: Yeah. So that's really, it really started just for our family.

And up until, you know, 2018, I was really the only person that was writing on it. But, you know, what happened in 2018, we had a really rough year. My husband was diagnosed with a serious illness. We lost our first granddaughter at birth and it, he didn't do well and our family really fell apart. It was a tough, tough year and a half. And I really found myself sitting on these benches more than I ever did. Not just always writing, sometimes just sitting there being part of nature and God, but also what really was amazing was when I would sit and I would read from the beginning and I thought, wow, I've really come a long way. You know, I'm brave. I had a lot of courage here, I've grown.

So that was when I realized, you know, the benches did have a healing power in themselves and that actually was what brought our family back together. You know, sometimes my husband

and I would sit on those benches, one on each side and sometimes holding hands, sometimes laughing, sometimes crying, but it was really a real healing experience.

Tina: Yeah, I love the image and I love that you said it takes you back

to a simpler time because I do think about how many parks I walk through and see, you know, honestly, mostly older people sitting on benches, but their children and their our parents and there are different, it really does. They're every, I can imagine most people have an image when they think about a bench and it's peaceful, right? Yes.

Being peaceful. So tell us a little bit about that was 2018. Fast forward to the day the world closed down. What happened during COVID with these benches?

Beth: Well, you know, everyone knows. I mean, isolation, depression, anxiety, suicide, everything was at all time high. And it was at that point that we realized, you know, we have this slice of heaven right here on our farm that no one knows about. So we thought, you know what?

Maybe this should be The Bench Project. This should be more than just, you know, on the Romanesque family farm. So we decided on a mission

and that was going to be to inspire and nurture the human spirit by creating a connection through a shared experience one bench at a time.

So we decided to open the farm to people, to our community, to walk because, you know, you could do things outside during COVID.

So we opened the farm and, you know, we let people come and walk

and just getting outside was healing enough to be in nature. But then when you add the, you know, the fact that, wow, I can sit here and read what someone else has written and not feel alone and then share what I have to share and, you know, leave it at the bench. That was a whole other aspect. And that also prompted us to realize that it wouldn't

stay just on the farm. So we created a bench tag. Prior to that, we just had the bag, the weatherproof bag with the journal and the pen

and the colored pencils, but we developed a bench tag, which is like a three by five aluminum tag that has a unique QR code on each one

that can be attached to any bench, whether it's in your backyard and private or it's public and it's, you know, in the community. And that way, you didn't need a bag and you could, anyone could open their phone, camera apps, scan the QR code and the journal would pop up for that bench and you could read whatever anyone has written,

why the bench was set up and who set it up and then add to your had your own entry, whether it's text, video, voice, you know, you really can be connected to everyone that's sat there. So your story literally becomes theirs and theirs becomes yours. So yeah, it's really special.

So that's why that's really the changes that we made during COVID because, you know, a lot of people at that point were like, do I wanna open this bag? Do I wanna touch this bag? You know, everybody was so scared. So the tag made it like just, it took it up in another notch and it allowed us to, you know, spread it across the country.

Serena: Mm-hmm, yeah. So how many do you have out there now?

Beth: So now we're in 31 states and I believe we're almost to about 110 benches.

Serena: Okay.

Beth: And yeah, so it was really great. When we first started to do it,

my daughter was moving to Colorado and we took a road trip.

And I drove with her and then flew home and we just put tags.

We stop outside coffee shops and talk about the bench project

and they'd like, yes, put a tag here. Or, you know, and so we tried to get the word out that way. And that was really our first venture

with getting out west. But now it's just, it's just, you know,

we get benches that are added every week. So that's really cool.

Serena: That's great. I love this idea. So imagine I'm thinking about, you know, wondering where I could put this in my community because I think it's really, really great. So on your website, you're right.

Get outside to go inside. Tell us what you mean by this.

Beth: Well, you know, during that time when things were really rough,

I really realized that like nature has its own healing on its own.

And when you can step outside your situation, whether it's your house and the stress that's in there or it's your job or whatever, when you can step outside that and get into nature, I mean, statistics show that it lowers heart rate, it lowers stress, it lowers blood pressure, it lowers your cortisol levels. You know, it increases your creativity, it increases your, you know, your emotions that allow you to connect with yourself and others. And so that adding that nature to it and realizing that, you know, it's sitting on a bench and a lot of people are like, well, I don't have, but you know, everybody has the sky. You know, so even if you're in a park or somewhere that, you know, maybe it's not a green space,

but you know, look up and think, you know, this is vast like I'm part of something so big. So yeah, the getting outside to go inside, it just increases your ability to not only disconnect from the things that are stressful but reconnect to yourself. And journaling is really an important part of that too, you know, because, you know, when you can share your feelings on paper, it allows you to communicate better in person.

Tina: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. Okay, Beth, so let's get real here and talk about if you would without kind of outing anyone who might not want to be out of this, but I'm just curious if there's a particular bench

or connection that you could give us an example of, that really has touched you in some way that makes this, you know, we do this work

because it's soulful and I'm just curious what has, if you can give us an example of a project that's touched you in particular.

Beth: Well, you know, I think every entry really is very personal,

but when you put it on paper, you know, you're putting it there because again, it's going to help someone else. So I think, I think one of, in the beginning, when my daughter and I went to Colorado, we put a bag and a bag and a journal in Creed, Colorado, and it was a little mining town

and they had to just had a tiny little park right on the main street. And probably about a month and a half after we placed it, I got a message on Instagram from a girl and she said, so I'm on the up and over trail in Creed, walking and there's, I found your bag and it's attached to a tree and it's almost filled. And she's like, I'm so, I'm loving this project so much. Like, what can I do? So I was like, wow, this is interesting

that the bag moved.

Serena: Right?!

Beth: So I called someone in the town like first started with the police and they took me over to one of the offices and I talked to her and she was like, send me a new journal, I'll send somebody up on the trail and they'll replace it and then they sent me the journal. So there are so many stories in there about heartfelt things, but what I know is that

the connection is incredible because, you know, one of the things when I first leave a journal, I always write, you know, start from the beginning

and read as many entries as you can and then share your story and always end with gratitude because there's always something to be thankful for, even though things are hard. So there was a woman in there that shared a lot about a story that she actually was almost a few years back was going to take her life and she wasn't then, but she shared about it and how she's grown from it and wanted to share that with people to say, you know, if you're ever thinking about that, think again because, you know, your life does matter. So there were so many comments after that from people that were like, this is exactly what I needed to see today or, you know, the ripple effect of one person's vulnerability just really does create that connection and so many people were cheering her on in the later comments or saying, you know,

thank you so much for sharing. So it just, it builds on it, you know,

people build on each other's vulnerability and courage which I think in general that's what the bench projects about, it's about connecting.

Tina: I love it, yeah, amazing.

Serena: Yeah, so we can imagine that other people out there

like myself are thinking about, you know, what this might look like in their community. So can you share like, what are the, so suddenly you have tags, I believe you have benches and then you've got the journals to tell us about like sort of the different ways that people can do this and how they get in touch with you.

Beth: Okay, so the first thing you would do if you wanted to place a bench in your community would be find a spot and then if it's a public spot that, you know, is in a park, you're gonna have to get permission obviously to put a bench there. If it's like outside a coffee shop or in somewhere that's more, it's public but it's owned by someone,

you know, that's a different story. You can easily talk to them.

But so it could be a bench or it could be just a tag because there's so many benches around. So if you wanted to place a tag on an existing bench, that's an easy, that's easy because, you know, you can just attach it with the stainless steel wire or there are some screws that come with it, you could screw it on. But many times, depending on where it is

I definitely get permission, especially if it's outside somewhere,

but if I'm walking along and it's a public trail, not a state park and not a national park, for sure. Those are, they definitely have guidelines there.

And we are in process of talking to a couple state parks to try to get, you know, benches in those areas, but national parks would be great as well. But yes, so many times I've just dropped a tag and I attach it and it's not permanent because it's just with a wire that has like a screw on it and most often they stay because it ends up being a positive. You know, we've even had news channels contact us and say, hey, look at this, the bench project is in Charleston, South Carolina at Hampton Park, you know. So it's, so that's how you could get involved. The other thing is we are a 501c3. So we accept donations and we donate benches. So there are bench project benches, which when you go to you'll see the benches that are available. But the bench project bench is a beautiful, it's like a brown bench and it's made out of 944 recycled milk jugs. And it says the bench project across the back and then the second board underneath can be personalized

with a quote or in memory of someone or in honor of a good human, however you would like it. So what happens there is I get messages from people a lot of times from non-profits or from people that don't have the funds to purchase a bench but would love to have a bench in a location for someone. And then, you know, we have money in our fund

that we provide that bench. So right now I have like three different ones in process that are gonna be probably by the end of April or May that are gonna be placed. So that's a really, really cool way to, you know, honor some, but you can also do that too. We have people that do fundraising and then put that bench out in public for people which is also great. Yes.

Tina: So say I wanna tag or I wanna contact you and how can I do that?

Beth: So you can contact me at or I'm on all social media, we're on Instagram and Facebook @thebenchproj

and we're on TikTok @thebenchproject. So, yeah, or there's a spot on the that you can contact me there.

Tina: Excellent, okay, awesome. So we like to think of a future world

where everything is just like we like it and we're curious if your bench project, like what is your vision for the future? What would in a perfect world, what would your vision be?

Beth: I would love to see bench project benches all around the world in beautiful locations like national parks, ocean vistas, Disneyland, where emotions and experiences both run deep, but also in hard places like hospice units, hospitals, cemeteries, universities, airports, places where people find stress and struggle, but also just outside coffee shops, on streets and parks, where people have a moment just to sit, but mostly in every backyard, because keeping families connected is priceless. So starting your own bench project in your backyard is really what something anybody can do. So if you have an existing bench,

grab the connection bundle, which is the journal that pens the colored pencils and a tag, put it on the bench in your backyard. It's a great way to almost keep a time capsule. You can document moments, Fourth of July parties, but then also when maybe your child comes home from school and they're having a tough day, like go out and sit, draw or write something in the journal. And then they see that mom was out there two days before because she had a tough morning. So it really keeps that communication open and keeps everyone connected. So that's really my huge mission is family and starting there because that's just,

once you start there, it goes everywhere.

Serena: Mm.

Tina: I have a friend who's moving and literally she just texted me a picture of a bench and said, do you have a use for this? And oh, well, now I do. Now I do. So you can wait for my email on your website,

look for it later today, probably.

Beth: Good. Perfect.

Serena: Yeah, so before we wrap the episode up, is there anything that we haven't asked you that you would like to share with the world?

Beth: No, I think we covered a lot of things, but when you do go to the website, the, the first thing that'll pop up is a place for you to sign up for 30 days of free nature journaling prompts. So that's a really great way to get outside in your yard, even if it's not on a bench and take a notebook or use your phone and journal every day. Journaling can be scary for people sometimes, but we make it really easy with these prompts. So it kind of gets you thinking about things.

And yeah, I've had a lot of great feedback about it. So that's one great way to start your connection with nature and The Bench Project.

Tina: Amazing.

Serena: Yeah, so Beth, thank you so much for taking the time to join us today. I love The Bench Project. This is amazing, and I just love all the connection that you're creating.

Beth: Well, thank you so much. And thank you for becoming part of our story and letting me become part of yours because that's what connection is all about, connection makes us whole. We are all about helping people be as well as they can be wherever they are.

Tina: And we are all about helping people be as well as they can be where ever they are so?So awesome.

Serena: And so podcast friends, we are as always grateful for all of you taking the time to listen and support us. We know you have lots of choices out there. And we appreciate you spending some time with us today. You can help us out by visiting Apple Podcast. Leave us a review while you're there and make sure you subscribe. You'll find more content on our website, You will find us on the socials and we have a voicemail number. Leave us a voice message to us what you think of the podcast or just call to say hi.

Tina: And this is your gentle reminder to take good care of yourself

while you are also taking care of your people.

Serena: Thanks for listening.

Tina: Bye.