Tag Archives: Alex Dulin

End Of An Era: Safe Rides Shuts Down

SafeRides has saved its last life.

The program — which ran Saturday nights from 10 p.m. to 1:30 a.m., providing free, confidential transportation home to any high school student in Westport — will not reopen in September.

Directors cite 2 reasons: lack of volunteers, and Uber.

SafeRides began in May, 2009. It was the inspiration of Staples High School senior Alex Dulin — a 1-girl tornado who had recently moved here from suburban Seattle. Just 5 months later, she received the 2009 Youth Leadership Award from the Connecticut Youth Services Association.

For nearly a decade, SafeRides thrived. A board of directors — all high school students — organized volunteer drivers. It was a lot of responsibility, with plenty of training.

SafeRides volunteers, waiting for calls.

But it was fun too. Working in a room donated by Christ & Holy Trinity Church — and munching on pizzas delivered free every week by Westport Pizzeria — dispatchers and drivers ferried teenagers too drunk (or otherwise incapable or unable) to get in a car, from parties or friends’ houses back home.

There was plenty of support. The Westport Police Department backed the program. Kiwanis Club provided an insurance policy. And Westport Wash & Wax offered free cleaning to any driver whose passenger got sick. (It happened a few times.)

But starting last year, numbers — of volunteers and riders — dropped drastically.

A year ago there were 7, 10, 12 calls a night — with 12, 15 or 18 riders. Now there were just 1 or 2 calls, with 2 or 3 riders.

Several times this past school year — lacking enough volunteer supervisors, dispatchers and drivers — SafeRides did not operate.

“The kids on the board tried hard to keep it going. A lot of people tried,” SafeRides president Maureen Coogan says. “There just weren’t the numbers.”

She noted that  SafeRides collected users’ cell numbers — and would only drive teenagers home, not to another party, the diner or McDonald’s.

Uber has none of those requirements. It often arrived quicker than SafeRides.

And — by using a parent’s credit card — Uber seemed as “free” as SafeRides actually was.

“It’s sad for kids who don’t have their parent’s credit card,” Coogan says. “What are we showing our kids — that it’s okay to take their parent’s credit card and do whatever they want?

“And for the community, it’s sad. My daughter had a blast volunteering with her friends. It’s sad that kids will grow up without that sense of giving up a couple of Saturday nights, to volunteer.”

There’s no way of knowing how many lives SafeRides saved. But Westport has not had a teenage traffic fatality in many years. It certainly worked.

Now saving lives is Uber’s responsibility.

SafeRides Saves Lives

For years, the Westport Youth Commission tried to develop a Safe Rides program. Members knew it’s a very effective way to keep teenagers out of cars after they — or their friends — have been drinking. But organizers could never overcome thorny insurance questions.

In 2009 Alex Dulin solved the problem. The Staples junior had just moved from Mercer Island, Washington, where she was deeply involved in a SafeRides program. They ran it through Boy Scouts. Voilà!

Julie Mombello

Julie Mombello

Julie Mombello — head of volunteers for the Staples PTA — was inspired by Alex’s passion. Julie, Alex and a host of others became driving forces (ho ho) behind Westport’s SafeRides program.

Five years later, it’s thriving. Every Saturday night at 9:30, a team of student dispatchers (and 1 adult volunteer) gathers at Christ & Holy Trinity Church. They eat food donated by Westport Pizzeria.

And every Saturday — until 1:30 a.m. — 4 cars are constantly on the go. Each has a backpack with a first aid kit, rubber gloves and water.

There’s also a bucket. Westport Wash & Wax has offered to split the cost of an interior wash and detail, if someone gets sick and misses the bucket. That’s happened once in 5 years.

Giving up a Saturday night is a huge commitment. But this year 46 seniors, 59 juniors, 28 sophomores, 11 freshmen — and 28 adults — did it at least once.

Every volunteer must pay to work with SafeRides. Additional funds come from the Staples and middle school PTAs, and some elementary schools’, and the PAL.

SafeRides volunteers, before the calls come in.

SafeRides volunteers, before the calls come in.

The calls offer a (confidential) window into Westport life. Some come from teenagers who know they have drunk too much, and should not drive home. Some come from their friends.

Some come from babysitters, who do not want to get in a car with a father (or mother) who has been drinking.

SafeRides tries not to be a taxi service. Sometimes, though, it is.

“We brainstorm all the time how to avoid it,” Mombello says. “We can’t come up with a way. But we can’t limit the people who use SafeRides. It’s okay to be a taxi service once in a while, so long as we’re saving lives.”

SafeRides logo

A criticism of SafeRides — before it began, and now — is that it promotes teenage drinking.

“I can’t believe someone drinks because of SafeRides,” Mombello counters. “What SafeRides does is keep someone who has been drinking from getting behind the wheel — and it keeps their friends out of the car too. If we save one life, it’s worth it.”

SafeRides drivers and navigators will not leave until they’ve seen their rider get safely inside the home. A few times, Mombello says, drivers have rung the bell, to make sure their rider was met by an adult.

Occasionally calls are made to parents, to say their child is being delivered home by SafeRides. Drivers have waited in the driveway until the adults arrived.

“Parents have been incredibly appreciative of that,” Mombello says.

SafeRides 1No one has ever had to call 911. But every member trains for that eventuality.

“SafeRides has really established itself,” says Mombello. “Our feet are firmly on the ground.”

After 4 years as director, she’s stepping down. Mark Dulsky — a longtime volunteer with Service League of Boys (SLOBs) and baseball — takes over.

Tomorrow is the final night of the school year for SafeRides. In September — when school begins — they’ll start again.

And they’ll continue saving lives, even if no one ever knows whose.

Crowd-Funding SafeRides’ Smartphone App

When SafeRides was first proposed several years ago, there were big concerns.

Giving teenagers free rides home from parties — no questions asked — will encourage drinking!

Kids will use it as a taxi service!

People will join just to put it on their college application!

SafeRides logoThose fears were unfounded. In the years since Alix Dulin and a few friends got the confidential service up and running, it’s become a low-key, but very important, part of local adolescent life.

And, in typical Westport fashion, it’s made a national impact.

Staples parent Isaac Levi appreciated SafeRides — but was surprised its lack of an even rudimentary website made scheduling and operations difficult. In 2009 he and friend Amiel Dabush developed software to schedule drivers, e-mail members, distribute messages and update calendars.

Then they made the system available to every other SafeRides chapter in the country. SafeRidesUS.com makes scheduling and dispatching  easy — and starting a new chapter painless. Over 60 high school and college groups now use the SafeRidesUS software.

But a website is so early 2000s.

So Isaac and Amiel set their sights on the smartphone market.

Isaac Levi

Isaac Levi

With GPS — and all the other stuff iPhones and Androids can do — scheduling volunteers, getting substitutes, dispatching and routing rides, and communicating with riders, drivers and navigators will be cake.

With just one or two swipes, users can ask for a ride, then find out how soon the driver will arrive. GPS will pinpoint where someone needing a ride is calling from if they don’t know (or are too drunk to explain).

Isaac and Amiel funded the initial website themselves. But they figure it will cost $50,000 to get the SafeRides app developed, running and marketed.

Drew Angus — a 2007 Staples grad who admits he “never knew SafeRides existed” — produced a video for Isaac and Amiel. They’re using it to raise money on the crowd-funding site IndieGoGo.

There’s great potential for expanding the app. Bartenders, for example, could prevent patrons from driving home drunk.

But right now Isaac and Amiel are concentrating on raising capital. In Westport, it can take 15 minutes for a SafeRides car to pick up a rider.

Coincidentally, every 15 minutes someone in America dies in a drunk driving accident.

Isaac, Amiel and everyone in SafeRides wants to cut both numbers down.

(To contribute to the SafeRides app, or view the IndieGoGo video, click here.)

Riding Safely

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.”

Julie Mombello

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:  mombo50@att.net.)