For many children in the Birmingham area, streets are unsafe to walk and sidewalks can be few and far between. Besides safety concerns, children are not getting enough physical activity in their day. This is where the Safe Routes to School of Central Alabama comes in.
The National Center for Safe Routes to School is focused on improving children’s safety while walking and biking to school. Here in Jefferson County, Safe Routes to School of Central Alabama (originally funded through a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Healthy Kids Healthy Communities grant, and supported by the Health Action Partnership) is also addressing issues of childhood obesity and social interaction with the Walking School Bus.
“We go in and map out the safest way for children to walk to school for about three-quarters of a mile from their school,” says Nick Sims, Safe Routes to School of Centra Alabama Coordinator. Once routes are established, stops are chosen where children in the neighborhood can gather to be “picked up” by the walking bus.
“This is additional time for kids to get physical activity, and hopefully meet that recommendation of 60 minutes of daily physical activity,” says Kadie Peters, a Safe Routes partner from United Way of Central Alabama, “That activity in the morning can help kids arrive to school alert and ready to learn. Also, a bonus benefit is that it gets these kids to school on time and they can take advantage of the free or reduced breakfast.”
Community is a crucial part of the Safe Routes to School initiative. “When we were meeting with folks, we kept hearing that there was a disconnect between neighbors and community,” says Amanda Storey, who helped found the Safe Routes Program in Jefferson County. “People remembered knowing their neighbors, of feeling safe letting their kids play in the neighborhood. As we kept hearing that, we started thinking about this walking school bus idea. It could be run by church members, parents, people who are cornerstones in the neighborhood. Children could know that there are safe places to go in the neighborhood if there’s danger.”
Storey says an added benefit of the walking school bus is that it affects policy change. “Once you start on that trail with the kids you can see the sidewalks that need to be fixed, the rundown houses in the neighborhood, things like that,” Storey says. “If people in the community see it for themselves then they can advocate for change. What better way to communicate those policy changes than to have children participate?”