Volunteers to offer kids safe havens

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

MARYSVILLE, Ohio -- Everyone hopes that no evil lurks near a school, and

that kids are as safe as can be along well-lit and heavily traveled streets

and sidewalks.

But to a child walking home from school, even the little things can be

frightening: a vicious dog, the neighborhood bully, maybe even a sudden,

violent storm. A child also can quickly fall ill, and accidents sometimes

happen, too. It is in those situations, local officials believe, that a

child should have someplace safe to go.

So the school system, the Union County Health Department and Marysville

have resurrected a program in which volunteers put a sign in the front

window of their home signaling to children that it is a safe haven if they

are hurt, threatened, frightened or lost.

"It's a way to take back our streets and ensure parents that their

children who walk to and from school have a way to get help if they need

it," said Shawn Sech, a health-department educator.

Calls to a few police departments and school districts in Madison,

Union, Franklin and Delaware counties found no similar program.

The Union County program is modeled after the Block Parent Program of

Canada, a network of more than 300,000 safe-house volunteers.

Back in the 1960s and '70s, block parent programs were popular in the

U.S., and whole generations remember growing up being told to look for the

special sign. Northwood Elementary School Principal Melissa Hackett surely

does.

But times have changed. Parents today are more cautious, and kids

generally are taught to avoid strange people and places.

For that reason, Hackett says, the safe-house program might be a tough

sell. Nevertheless, she hopes it is successful so more children feel safe

enough to walk to the school she runs in Marysville's largest subdivision.

Only about 7.5 percent of the district's student population walks to

school.

"I know the world can be a scary place, but we cannot always live in

fear," Hackett said. "There are lots of really good parents out there who

want to help."

The best thing parents can do for their children is to be involved,

experts say.

Take a walking tour of the neighborhood with your child, and point out

safe places such as a fire station, City Hall or these homes, said Nancy

McBride, national safety director for the National Center for Missing &

Exploited Children.

Parents should examine each place and, in the case of the safe houses,

ask how the volunteers are screened and monitored.

"Then, they can make a judgment call as to whether to send their child

there in an emergency," she said.

Each safe-homes volunteer and any adult living in their household will

have to submit fingerprints for a federal criminal background check. Local

authorities are paying the $48 tab.

Volunteers will be expected to give comfort and call 911, a parent or

the school if the child needs it. They don't have to give first-aid if they

aren't comfortable with it, Sech said. They just have to be willing to get

help.

Officials have just started promoting the program and are planning to

recruit volunteers from school parent-teacher organizations. They hope to

have 10 houses near each of the district's five elementary schools.

Bonnie Engle-Tubaugh lives near one and already has asked for an

application. Her two grandchildren are her motivation; she would want

someone to help them if they needed it.

"It's just not safe today like when we were kids," she said. "Kids can't

be out there without anyone to help or anyplace to go."

Tips for a safe trip home

About 45 percent of attempted abductions occur when a child is going to

and from school or school-related activities, according to the National

Center for Missing & Exploited Children. The center offers these tips for

staying safe on the trip:

* Always go with a friend when walking or riding a bike to and from

school.

* Walk or ride in well-lit areas.

* Never take shortcuts.

* Stay with a group while waiting at the bus stop.

* Never accept a ride from anyone unless your parents have told you it

is OK to do so in each instance.

* Trust your feelings. Children need to know that if someone makes them

feel scared, uncomfortable or confused, they should tell a parent, guardian

or trusted adult.

* Get away as quickly as possible from anyone who follows you.

* Always tell parents or another trusted adult what happened.

For more tips, visit www.missingkids.com. For information on the Union

County program visit www.uchd.net.

Source: National Center for Missing & Exploited Children