Safe Rides program gathers speed in Redding and Easton

Luca Cerbin and Michael Klein-Wassink created a Safe Rides program at Joel Barlow High School.
Luca Cerbin and Michael Klein-Wassink created a Safe Rides program at Joel Barlow High School.

After a slow start, the Redding and Easton Safe Rides program is now getting several calls an evening. Since its first night of operation, the program has given around 40 rides.

Michael Klein-Wassink, 17, co-founder of the program, attributes the slow start to “establishing trust.”

“A lot of kids initially didn’t have a trust for the system,” he said. “They thought that they would get reported for being out drinking.”

The volunteer program, founded by Michael and fellow Barlow senior and Redding resident Luca Cerbin, 17, started Nov. 10.

If teens are out with friends or at a party where there is underage drinking, they may call Safe Rides and a fellow student will pick them up wherever they are and drive them home or to a preferred destination.

The rides are available only to high school students who live in Redding and Easton. Drivers won’t go out of these towns, either to pick up or drop off.

Callers may be homeschooled, but must be high school students.

The Safe Rides program is made up of high school volunteers. It operates Friday and Saturday nights from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.

A team of eight to 10 students gathers at St. Patrick Church on Black Rock Turnpike and waits for calls. While they wait, they play board games and have snacks.

“We prioritize the safety of our volunteers just as much as the safety of the people who are driving around,” Michael said. “We always have a driver and a navigator. The navigator will put in the address of the destination. We have a GPS system in all the cars.”

Michael said he had a feeling the program would start slowly, because of the trust issue.

“I was getting that sense, and since I’ve talked to about three or four other Safe Rides programs before starting, I knew that the trust issue had tended to be a problem,” Michael said. “Kids don’t want to get in trouble. They don’t want Safe Rides to tell the school that they used a Safe Ride because they were drinking. They are afraid of getting suspended.”

Michael said Safe Rides will not share information on those who call. It follows strong confidentiality agreements.

“While we do keep a report on who is getting a ride, it’s purely for our records,” he said. “We don’t share it with the police or the school.”

He explained that students’ names are kept in a binder so that if the organization were to be audited, it would be accessible.

“We would never would tell anyone that a person was drinking or smoking,” he said. “If we were trying to help the police find someone, we would say, however, that we dropped the person off.”

He added that Safe Rides would never submit information to the police on its own. “They would have to come to us if they have a problem,” he said.

One of the rules of the program is that the caller has to be going to a home and not to a party.

When calls come in, dispatchers ask students a set list of questions, which they fill out on a log. One of these questions is, “Who is the ride for?”

The answer must be the home address for one of the people who is getting the ride.

Sometimes volunteers have had to think on their feet as certain situations arise for which they are unprepared.

“Our rules don’t necessarily cover all of the situations that can happen,” Michael said. “You have to make a judgment call, which is why we always have an adult on duty as well.”

One such call came in when a Barlow graduate contacted Safe Rides.

“We all knew who he was since he had gone to school with us, but we couldn’t drive him home because this is only a service for high school students,” Michael said.

Also, Safe Rides will not drive people to parties, including house parties.

Michael said that hypothetically, if Safe Rides gets many calls to one address, “We would know they are trying to go to a house party — and that’s not in our interest.”

“We haven’t had these types of calls, but we know that that’s a possibility, and a lot of other Safe Rides programs have had them,” he said.

He did say that on one occasion, “we had five girls call who all wanted to go to the same address. We first thought these girls were trying to go to a party, but they were all crashing at the same house.”

“This is OK. You can be going to the home of a friend, as long as it’s not a party,” he said. “We knew they were coming back from a party and it was no big deal driving them home.”

Things don’t always go squeaky clean for the volunteers — but they come prepared. “We have had people throw up in our car. We have buckets and bags for this,” Michael said.

Luca said he feels that Safe Rides is successful.

“Initially, it was only a call here or there from seniors, but now it is starting to extend down to lowerclassmen, too.”

“Additionally, we have started to see students start to plan their nights around Safe Rides, where they will plan to go to a party and get a Safe Rides home at 2 a.m.”

Easton resident Stephan Dow, 17, one of the Safe Rides drivers, said he strongly believes in the program.

“Through Safe Rides, we have cut down on driving and driving and driving under the influence,” he said. “As students, we are trying to look out for the people in our community any way that we can.”

Stephan said even though he doesn’t know all the Barlow students personally, he feels a strong connection to all of them regardless.

“While we may not be best friends with the people we are giving the rides to, we see their faces every day in the hallway, we grew up with many of them and have been going through life with them,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine life without seeing those faces.”

He added that it’s good to know the student body understands that “we have people looking out for them,” he said. “We make sure everyone is safe at the end of the night.”

The Safe Rides program will run until June 9 — the end of the school year — and then pick up again in the fall.

“The hard part we have is finding someone who we trust to take it over,” said Michael, who will be attending the University of Pennsylvania in the fall. “We are looking for someone who is motivated enough to do it.”

He said if people slack off and don’t care enough about getting the program organized correctly, “it can fall apart really easily.”

“My goal is to have more people call, because I know there are more people who need it but aren’t calling,” he said.

He said if people have questions, they can look at the Safe Rides Facebook page or call the Safe Rides number, 203-308-0604.

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