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 — 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.
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.”
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 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.