By Tom Hubka
Pilot staff writer
After two hours of learning the rules of the road and how to dial 911, the 11 children gathered in Kalmiopsis Elementary School's classroom 4 were tired. All the children had just finished the second, two-hour day of Safety City, a local program geared toward teaching soon-to-be kindergartners how to be safe around everything from strangers to guns.
And though the children looked worn out, some slumping in their red and yellows chairs as others wondered aloud when snack time would come, Safety City Coordinator Dan Palicki proceeded with the final lesson of the day: a review of what was learned.
"OK listen up, please," he boomed. "What did we learn today? What do you wear when you get on a boat?"
With only this question fueling them, the children perked up, sitting up straight, their eyes widening with accompanying smiles.
"A life jacket," they said in high-pitched unison.
"Do you go in the water alone?" Palicki continued.
"No," the children shouted, surprising even Palicki with their sudden volume.
"How about if you find a gun? What do you do?" Palicki asked.
Two girls jumped out of their seats with excitement, hands high in the air, as all 11 yelled the answer at the top of their lungs:
"Stop! Don't touch it! Leave the area! Tell an adult!"
With that, the children gathered up their homework, crayon-ready posters of cartoon characters safely crossing the street they had colored, and went home.
It may not come as a surprise that Palicki and his 12 volunteers don't wonder if their program is effective.
Celebrating its 10th anniversary this summer, Safety City wrapped up its third and final session for the year this week.
The program brings in three groups of 5- and 6-year-olds who are entering kindergarten in the fall and teaches them safety tips they can use in the community every day.
The list of agencies and officials who come and speak with the children rivals any kind of meeting held around town: the U.S. Coast Guard, Brookings Police, local fire departments, the U.S. Forest Service, a veterinarian, Coos-Curry Electric Cooperative. And of course there are those famous little pedal cars.
The German-made cars, which are essentially beefed up tricycles, were brought to the program with money from a federal grant, Palicki said. During the course's five days, the children learn how to stop, signal for turns, stop for pedestrians and listen for oncoming trains near tracks all on a makeshift street in the Kalmiopsis school's playground.
"If we can get them to learn that now, they'll think about it when they are driving," Safety City volunteer Larry Mostachetti said.
Palicki's team of volunteers helps the program run like a well-oiled machine by doing everything from teaching the actual lessons to calming down children who feel the need for speed behind the wheel.
"If it wasn't for the volunteers, (the program) wouldn't be here," Palicki said Thursday. "I may have brought Safety City here, but that's nothing. It's all about the volunteers."
Palicki did bring the program from another city and another year: Toledo, Ohio's Safe-T-City in 1972.
"They said you can plagiarize it all you want," Palicki said, laughing.
And other cities' versions of Safety City are not always free to the students as is Palicki's. The secret, he said, is having 35 dedicated sponsors who together donate the $2,300 needed to put on the program each year.
"Every dollar goes to the kids," Palicki said, adding that he personally buys the coffee for the volunteers; an example, he said, that shows that if the dollars don't help the kids they don't get spent.
Yet the experience for the children is not only about safety. It's about learning to work with others and smoothing the way into kindergarten.
"It teaches them to live in a community," volunteer Andy Dargo said. "The kids who come here, they're ready. They know what to do ... and it makes the kids feel like they are somebody."
"For a lot of them, this is the first time they have been in a structured environment," Assistant Coordinator Cliff Weeks said. "Teachers tell us they can tell when a kid has been in Safety City."
And teachers aren't the only ones who can tell the difference. Many parents said their children demonstrate what they've learned in the classroom.
"He's definitely learning things," Allison Roberts said of her son, William. Her son recently taught her the "better" way to check for oncoming cars before crossing the street, she said.
"I thought it was just both ways, but he was listing them off," she said.
William, after a little prodding from mom, said his favorite part of Safety City was meeting Smokey the Bear.
Jessica Alexander said her daughter, Sidney, had reinforced previous lessons about not talking to strangers.
"It's great," she said. "I can tell she's learning."
And Alexander and Roberts are not alone. Results from this year's parent evaluation questionnaire consistently show high marks in parent and child satisfaction.
"Great job on your Safety City," one parent wrote. "Our son now loves to point out how to be more aware and safe while we're in public."
The week will end today (July 28) with graduation at Kalmiopsis School. The children will receive a variety of gifts from the week's guests as well as a diploma.