Stirring a lot of controversy — but even more excitement — Safe Rides started almost a year ago.
The organization — which offers a safe ride home to Westport youngsters most Saturday nights — has become an important part of local life. Students are proud of what they’ve accomplished — and adult volunteers like Julie Mombello share in their satisfaction.
The Westport mother got involved with Safe Rides after hearing Alex Dulin — the local group’s founder, and at the time just a junior in high school — speak to both the Westport Youth Commission and Staples PTA. Julie’s involvement grew rapidly. These days she does everything from helping create the new web site to overseeing the calendar to updating paperwork.
With her youngest child entering Staples next year, Julie looks forward to continued involvement. She likes watching students take action — and she believes strongly in Safe Rides’ mission.
It is not — as critics charge — an invitation to teenage drinking. It is an acknowledgment that — all over the country — some young people do drink, and in our community we’ll do what we can to avoid tragic consequences.
“In an ideal world all teens would wait until they were legal to drink,” Julie says. “Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen. People who say that juniors and seniors are not going to drink are burying their heads in the sand. We don’t want to make it easier for teens to drink. We do want to give them a chance to make a good decision if and when they make a mistake.
“If they end up drinking at a party and are afraid to call home, we want them to have a safe alternative to getting behind the wheel. Not only does Safe Rides keep kids off the roads, but it makes Westport safer for everyone. We consider Safe Rides a way of giving back to the community.”
In the beginning of November, SafeRides added a 3rd car. “We didn’t want people waiting so long that out of frustration they either got behind the wheel of a car, or got into a car with someone who shouldn’t be driving,” Julie says.
The main users of Safe Rides are youngsters who drank too much, and those looking for rides when their “designated driver” drank. But there are other users too — like teenage baby sitters who don’t want to be driven home by parents who have had too much to drink.
One girl called Safe Rides when a date ended badly. In the car, she cried.
Of course, some people try to scam Safe Rides. “We’ve said no to kids at the diner,” Julie notes. “They had money and were too cheap to call a cab. We hate to say no, but we don’t want a car out on one of these trips when someone might really need a ride. We don’t want to be a taxi service.”
Safe Rides began a blacklist when it was discovered that someone gave a false home address, and was actually dropped off at a party. Users can be blacklisted for party hopping, extremely rude behavior, using the program every weekend, and leaving before a ride arrives.
However, Julie says, “people who are willing to give back and volunteer for a couple of Saturday nights can be ‘un-blacklisted.’ Once they see how the program runs, they might be less likely to abuse the system.”
The biggest challenge, Julie says, is recruiting student volunteers. While many adults — some of whom do not even have children involved in the program — stay up past 2 a.m. to make Westport roads safer, Safe Rides is looking to bolster its roster of 83 teens.
The more volunteers, the less arduous the commitment. And the safer Westport will be for everyone.
(Students and adults interested in the next training session should email Julie Mombello: firstname.lastname@example.org.)