Big Wheels aren’t just for fun any more.
Welcome to West Deptford’s Safety Town, a free summer program where parents can gain piece of mind knowing their young ones are taught about real world dangers and how to avoid them.
Big Wheels are teaching tools here, and Red Bank Elementary School is a miniature suburbia, where the kids can ride through streets, practice stopping at stop signs and watch for pedestrian traffic—courtesy of fellow classmates.
But that’s not all these kindergartners will learn while attending Safety Town.
Students can expect to find out things about health, fire safety, playground safety, bicycle safety and more.
Guest speakers are also brought in, such as local police officers to talk about “stranger danger.”
The Safety Town program, established nationally in 1964, came to West Deptford in the ‘90s, soon after a woman named Karen Bagnell approached the township and the West Deptford Junior Women’s Club about the program after moving from Michigan.
Bagnell’s oldest son had attended a version of the program in Michigan, and she aimed to have the program established in her new hometown.
It didn’t take long for West Deptford’s version to get off the ground, with the township and the West Deptford Junior Women’s Club sponsor the organization. Four teacher’s salaries are funded under the Parks and Recreation budget, with the rest of it covered by fundraising.
Yet it’s not only the teachers and the township playing a big role in Safety Town, it’s also the teens who volunteer every year to serve as guides for the kindergartners.
“Eighty percent of our teens are grads from Safety Town,” says Kathleen Casazza, a teacher in Westville and one of the coordinators of West Deptford’s Safety Town.
Kids like siblings Holly and Mike Golding who went through the Safety Town program as kids now volunteer there as teens.
Holly Golding said she remembers accidentally swallowing nail polish remover when she was a small child, and her older brother was able to assist his mother, having just gone over poison control in Safety Town.
“I like watching their faces as they go riding through the town,” said Mike Golding as to why he comes back every year.
For Holly Golding, who also teaches at Royal Dance Academy, it’s an extra thrill to see her former dance students enrolled in Safety Town.
“They’re always happy to see you come back,” says Olivia DiSimone, another Safety Town graduate who, at 13 years old, volunteers her time for the kids.
DiSimone said that one of thing she will take away from her experiences at Safety Town is learning to work with small children.
Matt Shinkle agreed with that sentiment; he said it’s hard sometimes to get shy kids to open up and it can be a challenge getting them to behave on the road in their Big Wheels.
Shinkle never attended Safety Town, but got involved after his younger brother, Tyler Shinkle, volunteered one summer. Matt Shinkle said working with the kids helps prepare him for kids in his own life one day.
One of the most challenging aspects of volunteering is thinking of quick responses for any off-putting questions the kids may have, Matt Shinkle said. Needless to say, when dealing with kindergartners, those kinds of questions are common.
More volunteers wouldn’t hurt, either, Matt Shinkle said, since it can be sometimes overwhelming when one teen is assigned to three kids.
Casazza says that no teen is ever turned down, but because of summer schedules, she sometimes finds some sessions may have more teens then kids, while other sessions may only have one teen for every two kids.
Almost all the teens continue to come back every year to teach new batches of kindergartners. Tyler Shinkle says he looks forward to new kids every year.
“The kids keep it fun and interesting,” he says.
And there’s never a dull day, Tyler Shinkle said—forget about volunteering being work when it comes to Safety Town, it’s always fun.