Almost 2,000 preschoolers have learned to avoid danger and stay safe under Karen Vollmer’s watch.
The director of Wauseon’s Safety City for almost three decades was in attendance last Friday to watch another class graduate after almost two weeks of instruction. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the summer program, and Vollmer has no plans to retire from her position.
“We need to keep our kids very safe. We need to keep Wauseon a safe town,” she said. “I plan to be here as long as I can.”
While not a unique program, Wauseon’s Safety City program is larger than some others, and has long been a tradition for children about to enter kindergarten. For nine days, two hours each day, they learn songs and rules and to safely navigate a mock eight-block city area on bikes, battery-operated vehicles, and Big Wheels, paying attention to crosswalks, signs, and a battery-operated stoplight.
On the tenth day, they graduate. Safety City is presented to teach them what is and isn’t a safe situation in a world full of possible dangers.
“These are young kids, they’re very eager to learn. They absorb the information,” Vollmer said.
Begun in 1978 as Wauseon Safety Town, the program had more stringent regulations. “Whoever was teaching it at that time thought it was too strict,” she said.
So it evolved into Safety City, with the purpose to teach boys and girls how to remain safe at home, at school, and at play. Participants are always around five years old and about to enter kindergarten in August.
A lot of topics are covered in a fun but informative way. The children learn what a stop sign is for, and the correct use of 911. Fire safety is taught in a special Wauseon Fire Department trailer that gradually fills with smoke to simulate a blaze. Safety measures are also taught regarding buses, crosswalks, seat belts, bicycles, playgrounds, poison, water, and, in the last several years, guns.
“They used to talk about stranger danger but that kind of has a negative connotation,” Vollmer said. Now the program uses “Charlie Check First,” which teaches the children to never go with anyone without first checking with their parents.
“When I teach stranger safety, I give the kids three phrases: ‘Don’t talk,’ ‘Don’t Take,’ and ‘Don’t go,’” she said. “For poison, it’s ‘If you don’t know what it is, don’t touch it, don’t taste it, don’t eat it.’”
An average of 60-80 children go through the program each summer. Vollmer is assisted by paid junior high students. The program is organized by the Wauseon Safety City Committee, comprised of Vollmer, Police Chief Keith Torbet, Assistant Police Chief Kevin Chittenden, and Fire Chief Rick Sluder.
Chief Torbet credits Safety City for the low number of pedestrian fatalities in the city.
The program is budgeted each year at $6,500, and funded by donations from city businesses, organizations, and private citizens. Vollmer said covering expenses depends on their ability to give year to year. “Some years are very hard, some years are easy,” she said.
This year, as the second set of Safety City classes are held this week, there is a $2,000 shortfall despite several new donors. A $2,000 grant from the Norfolk Southern Railroad Police Department given last year was not possible this year. Safety City costs begin at $20 per pupil and include a T-shirt. Late registrants must pay an additional $5 or $10.
Kristen Carrisalez shares teaching duties with Vollmer. A Kinderstart teacher at Evergreen schools and a Safety City instructor for three years, she said the program teaches kids basic skills in case of an emergency.
“They learn address, phone number. It allows them to understand what an emergency is and how to react in a situation that may come up when an adult is not around. It also prepares them for their first year of school,” she said.
One of the more special rewards for Vollmer, a substitute teacher at Wauseon High School, is to see students who went through the program years ago.
“I recognize some from way back when,” she said. “And they remember.”