By Marjie Ducey
OMAHA, Nebraska (Omaha World-Herald) — Chessboards now sit outside Dundee Elementary, thanks to some forlorn tree stumps, a lonely little boy and a concerned dad.
Tim Cayford, who learned woodworking as a youngster, burned the game onto the stumps after two dying trees were cut down. Checkers can be played on them, too, and one doubles as a picnic table. Benches surround them, part of an Eagle Scout project.
At the bottom of one chessboard, it reads “Gens una sumus,” the motto of FIDE, the international chess federation. It means, we are one family.
“Hopefully, friends and neighbors can gather around these places, or maybe a spark can be ignited to want to gather, in simplicity, even if you can’t speak the same language very well,” Cayford said.
His son’s struggles to find a friend until he met a newcomer from Afghanistan prompted the idea for Cayford’s endeavors at Dundee. Both boys were in fourth grade.
Cayford and his wife, Michelle, moved to Omaha in an indirect journey from abroad with children Elliot and Emmaline several months ago. English wasn’t Elliot’s first language. Making friends wasn’t going as well as it had in the past, both for father and son.
Things began to change for Elliot when Ali Yasir Azizi arrived. Elliot helped Ali with his English, and the two became fast friends.
“They didn’t play any social games that already creep up in mid-upper elementary school,” Cayford said. “The only game they played together was chess and soccer. A universal language in itself.”
Then one day Ali told Elliot he had to move. It wasn’t clear where or why. Elliot was crushed over the loss of his friend, and his dad shared his grief.
“Some months passed, and I would pass the forlorn stumps which sat around the perimeter of the school like lonely sentry,” Cayford said.
He began to think about the chessboards and players he’d seen in France and Belgium, where they lived as he did research for his startup company. It takes wood waste and turns it into commodities such as renewable diesel and aviation fuel.
One day at the playground, he mentioned the loss of trees and his chess idea to another parent.
“Turns out she was the former president of the PTO. I got an email a few days later from the vice principal and then a call from the current PTO president at the time,” he said.
They loved the idea of transforming the stumps into a place to gather.
Cayford said it took an “incredibly laborious” 30 hours just to burn the games into the stumps. One had to be redone with paint because it was too dark. The other chessboard is hidden in the checkerboard of the picnic table stump.
Elliot and Emmaline and two of their friends helped paint the benches, and Cayford used epoxy with glitter, just for his daughter, to protect the stumps.
While the Cayfords were working on the stumps, they met other families. Some play dates followed. Dad found some friends, too.
“I think it was a great idea, and it turned out really well,” Elliot said.
Dundee Principal Kaye Kennedy said another chess-playing parent donated some game pieces. They are available for any kids who want to play.
“The other night, when a family was waiting to pick up their child, they were out playing on the black-and-gold one,” she said. “It was great to see.”
Kennedy was able to solve the mystery of Ali’s disappearance. She knew what school Ali transferred to when his family moved farther west in Omaha.
A friendship could be revived.
“I hope Elliot and Ali can play chess someday sitting together around that stump,” Cayford said.
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