Safe Routes crossing

Chagrin Falls crossing guard Debs Wilkinson, 47, stops traffic to help children safely cross East Washington Street near the downtown shopping district on their way home from school last Thursday afternoon. Kathryn Garvey, president of Safe Routes Chagrin, said the establishment of crossing guards is one of the most successful accomplishments of the Safe Routes organization.

With the kick-off of the new school year, drivers might have noticed the return of guards clad in neon and armed with “STOP” paddles, guiding the village’s children to school in the wake of passing traffic.

These home-town heroes are the Chagrin Falls crossing guards, local volunteers who help students walk to and from school safely, and are one of the most popular successes of Safe Routes Chagrin, said Kathryn Garvey, president of Safe Routes Chagrin.

Safe Routes Chagrin steps into its 10th year in Chagrin Falls as an organization under the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Safe Routes to Schools, which “promotes walking and bicycling to school through infrastructure improvements, enforcement, tools, safety education and incentives,” according to USDOT. What started as a solution for safety concerns on jay walking and student safety in the village has expanded into a supporter of community values, connectivity and economic development.

The safety program in Chagrin Falls celebrates a decade by looking back at the impact it has had on the community and looking forward with plans to expand and continue strong.

“Anytime you have programs or opportunities that demonstrate a partnership between government entities, the village, the district, it speaks to the quality of other relationships we have with those organizations and how we can see the greater good in things,” Chagrin Falls Superintendent Robert Hunt said of Safe Routes Chagrin from a general perspective. “This program benefits students but also improves general safety and welfare of our community, and I think that speaks to what makes this program unique and special.”

For the school perspective, Mr. Hunt said that while the safety the program provides is an obvious benefit, the connection between adult volunteers and the students is equally important.

“The greater the number of positive adult influences and relationships that young people have, the greater opportunity they have for success, development and growth. From bus drivers to teachers but also to those crosswalk guards that are there every single day,” he said.

Looking back

“We started under the umbrella of a Safe Routes to School program, but you very quickly realize that when you make improvements for students, you’re making improvements for everybody, and it just changes the culture and dynamics for everybody involved,” Mrs. Garvey said.

Safe Routes Chagrin started off as a “grassroots effort” after she expressed her concerns to other parents and neighbors of their kids jay-walking to school with East Washington Street’s heavy traffic. She said other parents were concerned about stranger danger and the speed of cars that might not be watching out for walking students.

Angela DeBernardo, Chagrin Falls Safety Committee chairwoman, said she shared those concerns, noting an issue of people approaching kids walking to and from school that had happened at the time.

Mrs. DeBernardo said a local mom, Amy Price, got a group of people together to figure out how to tackle their concerns.

Mrs. Garvey said the group met with then Chagrin Falls Police Chief Jim Brosius and the principal of the Chagrin Falls Intermediate School and decided to focus on having crossing guards.

“We thought crossing guards would be great because they model [safe] behavior, they provide safe crossings for traffic issues, distracted driver issues and all of that,” Mrs. Garvey said.

Mrs. DeBernardo said the group “stumbled upon the Safe Routes to School program” and applied. “At that point [Mrs. Garvey] took the grant and ran with it,” she said.

“We found [Safe Routes to School] and we started exploring what’s involved with this, and the more we learned we were like ‘Oh, my gosh, there is real money here.’ It takes some work to access it, but it’s worth it because the payoff could be significant and could allow us to potentially address some of the issues we had,” Mrs. Garvey said. “We started to realize we can start some other programs,” she continued. “We can get equipment for crossing guards, we can look at infrastructure changes that are needed like increasing visibility of the school zone, new sidewalks, maybe new traffic signals, signage, things like that.”

Mrs. Garvey said that the Chagrin Falls program has benefitted from more than $850,000 in Safe Routes to School funds from the Ohio Department of Transportation. The majority of the funding, she said, was used for the Mill and Cleveland streets boardwalk and sidewalks at $460,000, and $57,300 of the grants paid for sidewalks on a section of Bell Street between Walters Road and the South Russell Village line.

“We also paid for improved student biking and walking paths on both the intermediate school and high school-middle school campuses,” she said, noting the paths’ $107,000 price tag. “Biking was not allowed at the upper campus until we approached the school board about adding an improved safe access path and bike racks.”

In addition to sidewalk and biking routes, the grants paid for safety supports – like background checks for volunteer crossing guards, school zone flashers and additional police monitoring in school zones – and educational and community outreach – like community contests or bike safety education.

“One of the things that I think for me is one of the biggest accomplishments that we did in concert with the village was getting that Mill Street sidewalk put in. That was a big money project that if you look at that sidewalk, look at that location, it’s always been very dangerous,” Mrs. DeBernardo said. She said the location of the sidewalk required a cantilever, which could cost “hundreds of thousands of dollars and not going to happen with a village budget. So, we were very lucky that the grant was willing to pay for infrastructure at that point.”

Values, connectivity, economics

Mrs. Garvey said there are three important themes of impact from Safe Routes Chagrin when focusing on 10 years of the program’s success.

“One is the program has been very successful because it responds to what our community values,” she said. “We don’t take for granted that kids walk to school, we don’t take for granted that we have sidewalks in this amazing downtown and you can walk to the library.

“The second thing is partnerships and connectivity, and that kind materializes in different ways, but we work so closely with the village, with the police department, with the school district and with the parents, and that’s a very special thing,” she added, noting that the program brings people together through seeing their neighbors more often and walking through the community on sidewalks.

“Economic development is another piece of it; where we’re bringing people in to appreciate what Chagrin has to offer in helping encourage kids. [Students will] walk after school, and they’ll go get an ice cream cone or they go to CVS and buy some candy. They’re becoming customers. They’re learning how to do that and support their local businesses again,” Mrs. Garvey said.

When Safe Routes Chagrin started, she said, about 17 percent of students walked to school. By 2015 more than half of the students at the Intermediate School biked or walked to school at least once a week. She added that she wants to measure how many students are walking to school again in the spring with the reopening of the intermediate school.

Mrs. DeBernardo said she handles the data collection and analysis of Safe Routes.

“I’m a scientist by training, so I did our original surveys, data analyses over the years of how we were increasing walking around the intermediate school,” she said.

“The first surveys we did of how many kids were walking to school was under 50 kids a day, and now if you look at it, we’re almost up to 200 or 300 kids a week,” Mrs. DeBernardo said. “That’s been great to see the number grow, and not only see more kids walking here but also seeing people embrace Chagrin as a walkable community and make that an identity.”

As for the crossing guards, Mrs. Garvey said the program “makes a huge difference for parents to know there’s an adult volunteer there to help if there’s an issue.” The crossing guards volunteer through the police department and Police Chief Amber Dacek oversees the program along with a Safe Routes volunteer manager, she explained.

“In a sense, the crossing guard program is a collaborative effort between Safe Routes and the police department,” Chagrin Falls Police Chief Amber Dacek said. “The police department does the background check of individuals and helps with the training, but there is a (Safe Routes) coordinator that oversees the actual program itself, the scheduling and seeking out volunteers and that part of it.

“I just think it’s very cool that the police department and Safe Routes group have been able to work together to achieve a common goal,” Chief Dacek said. “The job of the police department is to keep people safe, especially kids, and to be able to work together as an agency with a community group, I think, is always a neat thing for anybody in law enforcement. It’s been a nice collaborative effort.”

Another successful impact, Mrs. Garvey said, is Safe Routes’ community events, most notably Walk to School – Walk to Town Day.

“Nobody does it like we do it,” she said. “We know that not everybody can walk to school, but a lot of kids walk to town even if they live in South Russell or Bainbridge or wherever, so we wanted to respect that and reinforce that connection of our young students to our town.”

Safe Routes Chagrin presents this free, all-day community event in which schools participate and plan their own surrounding events. Mrs. Garvey said students get tickets to win prizes and healthy foods.

Mrs. DeBernardo said she also works on the community events and explained how the chicken became the staple mascot for Safe Routes Chagrin.

“I was there at the beginning. I was there when the chicken was invented,” she said of Markey Creative Design’s introducing the design with the chicken for Safe Routes to School. “We thought, ‘Really are we going to do this? The chicken?’ And we went with it,” she said. “The kids know the chicken and we’re locked in with the chicken thing.”

Stepping forward

Sally Goss, past president and current board member of Safe Routes Chagrin, said she has been a part of the program for seven years.

“One of the things that really has drawn me to the program has been there’s lots of ways to volunteer differently in the schools, community, and I really have enjoyed the aspects of Safe Routes in that it brings so many different entities together,” she said. I met people that I wouldn’t have otherwise met and felt very entrenched and connected to the community that way because it was so broad in its scope how we work together with different entities.”

Ms. Goss said Safe Routes is a “process that never ends because there will always be a need for it.” She noted that while some kids will grow out of the events, there are always new kids coming of age for the school and community programs.

“We’re still thinking about ways to move forward and how we evolve,” she said.

Mrs. DeBernardo said Safe Routes has discussed putting a sidewalk on Miles Road.

“And the residents out there have talked about it,” she added. “There’s a bridge there, and the bridge is slated to be done by the county within the next five years, so we’ve already spoken with them about when they do that, would we be able to put a walking path on the bridge because then we might be able to put a sidewalk on the other side.”

Mrs. Garvey said the organization has thought of “family discovery walks” to help residents find walking paths throughout the community that they might not know existed as form of expanding the program casually.

“We want families to explore these wonderful walking and biking paths we have that maybe they don’t know where they are,” she said, explaining that Safe Routes could hold meet-ups to go on walks with members of the community and show them where those paths are located.

“The connectivity is such a big thing, and it’s so important that we as a community work together and bring people in, and [it] shows what makes us a special community,” she said.

“It’s very Mr. Rogers Neighborhood,” Mrs. DeBernardo said, sharing a similar sentiment of building a stronger, connected community. “And if you live in your car, you don’t have that.”

Tim Tedeschi covers the Solon and West Geauga Board of Education, as well as statewide education issues, sports and features. He is a lifelong diehard Cleveland Indians fan and a graduate of Indiana Wesleyan University.

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