‘Safe Routes’ falls a step behind

FAIRMONT – For three years, volunteers with the Safe Routes to School program in Fairmont have been asking themselves the same question: How do we get more kids walking to school?

It is a complicated matter, according to volunteer Phil Hanson.

Over the years, the group has tried to share information with students, teachers and parents about the benefits of walking to school: statistics show students who walk are more alert in class, have a better awareness of their community and are more physically active. But still, only about 20 students regularly participate. Safe Routes to School offers four routes within the zone surrounding Fairmont Elementary in which students are not bused.

Program coordinator Joe Burns said the group asked the school to help identify which students are within the zone in order to talk to those parents, but privacy laws prohibit that information from being shared.

In the past, fliers have been sent home with students, surveys have been sent and teachers have announced the program from the front of the classrooms.

So why aren’t kids participating?

“I have had some people tell me the drive to school is the only time during the day they get to talk one on one with their kid,” said Burns, adding that others have told him their children are usually running too late to join. Concerns also have been raised about whether students will get to school in time for breakfast.

Safe Routes only runs one day per week – on Tuesdays – and it can be difficult for students who are not used to walking to remember.

“How do we get these kids to join us on Tuesday when they don’t walk on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday?” Burns asked.

He would love to have the program run every day, but he doesn’t expect to have that kind of commitment from volunteers.

A small group of chaperones has been walking the routes since the program began, and the group is constantly searching for more help. There are 10 volunteers right now, allowing for two adults per route.

The routes are designed to allow students to be dropped off not only at Fairmont Elementary, but at St. John Vianney as well. No students from St. Paul Lutheran currently utilize the program, but volunteers are willing to accommodate students if they wish to participate.

Volunteers say it helps if parents notify the program that their children are interested in participating, so they can make sure to pick them up along the route, but anyone can join them.

Volunteer Char Kahler said students who typically walk every day will still benefit from walking with a chaperone on Tuesdays. She said students enjoy visiting with one another along the walk.

“I look at it from a mentoring standpoint,” she said.”It is the camaraderie, mentoring and socializing.”

The program has no funding, and is completely run by volunteers with in-kind assistance from Fairmont’s Community Education and Recreation program, in the form of a meeting place and space in CER’s activity guide.

Safe Routes originally began with a grant from the Statewide Health Improvement Program, allowing the program to purchase yellow vests for chaperones and signage for the routes.

Students interested in participating are encouraged to get to a route starting point by 7:30 a.m., or join the group as it walks by their house.

Adults interested in volunteering with the program should contact Roni Dauer at Fairmont’s CER office, (507) 235-4133.

o Route 1 begins at Veterans Park and heads south along Prairie Avenue toward Victoria.

o Route 2 starts at Holden Park, going west to Prairie and east to Highland.

o Route 3 kicks off at the aquatic park and goes north along Prairie to Victoria.

o Route 4 starts at Bird Park, with walkers going east on Woodland to Victoria.

Chaperones are at their designated parks at 7:30. The time they leave the park and start to school will be determined after the first walking day April 9.