By Karen Cornelius
Vermilion Safety Town celebrated its 44th class graduation on a rainy Friday, June 23. Due to the weather, the 73 pre-kindergarten students didn’t get to show off their outdoor big-wheel riding and pedestrian skills around their miniature village to their families and friends. However, they proudly wore their hats inside to the Vermilion Elementary School ceremony where they received backpacks, bike helmets, gifts, coloring books, and diplomas.
The graduation was the culmination of two weeks of safety lessons enforced through fun songs, poems, crafts, and field visits. It was a special time for coordinator and head teacher Chrystal Deverick of the Vermilion Police Department who was ending her 13th year at Safety Town. She said her first class of Safety Town kindergarteners just graduated from Vermilion High School. Deverick spends a great deal of time preparing for each year’s program and schedules speakers, lines up aides and staff lunches, and coordinates a complete calendar of lessons and activities. She recalls retired dispatcher Jamie Leisure was the coordinator before her for 15 years and still continued to make all the tassels for graduation hats. Before Leisure, retired lieutenant Fred Barck had the program.
It was also a special time for Vermilion Police Department School Resource Officer Brian Beckwith who was experiencing the opposite end of the spectrum. His second year at Safety Town would start him following a new generation through to high school. Beckwith, himself, was a Vermilion Safety Town student and remembers current Vermilion police detective Steve Davis was his teacher then. Beckwith and his brother, Adam, even made many of the miniature village’s buildings for Eagle Scout projects with the help of Eagle Scout Robbie Prete. They also taught at Safety Town in the past.
When Beckwith’s Safety Town students enter Vermilion Elementary School this fall, they will already know Beckwith walking through the halls. Beckwith stated that being present in all the Vermilion schools during the year and teaching at Safety Town go nicely hand-in-hand. “It’s a taste of both worlds.” For the kindergarteners, they will see the school resource officer as less of an enforcer and more of a friend. Through Safety Town they have learned to come to him, not run away, if they need help.
“Attending school for the first time is a huge culture shock,” said Deverick. She said Safety Town helps these new students be more comfortable when they enter because they have already spent two weeks inside Vermilion Elementary School and know the cafeteria, classroom, and bathrooms. Deverick said on the very first day they introduce the school resource officer who shows students the different gear he wears along with his uniform. He even takes off his official shirt to prove he’s just a regular guy, a helper to go to with any problems. After that, patrolman Drew Davis took groups of children for police car rides around the parking lot.
Both Deverick and Beckwith agree “it takes a village” concept is the backbone of Safety Town. Everyone in the community cooperates to give the children valuable lessons they can use to keep safe. The Vermilion Fire Department appeared with their truck and smoke house, the Ohio State Patrol taught airbag and seatbelt lessons, Norfolk Southern discussed railroad safety, the U.S. Coast Guard presented water safety, the Vermilion bus garage did bus safety and an evacuation drill, Kidz First Advocacy Center from Nord Center was there for stranger danger and touching, Columbia Gas came with scratch and sniff paper, the police bicycle unit gave more safety tips, and there were lessons on guns, drugs, playground, and home safety.
Deverick said the school staff’s cooperation was wonderful from the custodians to prinicipal Bonnie Myer. Then there was Wendy’s Restaurant in Vermilion who has been donating lunch to the children for over 20 years. The American Academy of Pediatrics donated 40 bike helmets while the Vermilion Rotary Club and the Vermilion Lions Club alternates donating more bike helmets each year. Vermilion’s ACE Hardware has donated paint for the past three years to restore the village buildings, streets, and sidewalks. There are eight teaching aides in charge of groups of students that volunteer their time, some with the program year after year. Deverick said Devin Dumke, now a sophomore at college, still comes back for Safety Town, and Maria Rognon started in eighth grade and is a senior this year still helping.
The Vermilion Police Department and Safety Town’s sponsor the Fraternal Order of Police 125 have kept to a two-week course while other cities with Safety Town do it for one week. Deverick said she found it hard to cut back because they wanted to cover so many things in a timely manner rather than double up on speakers and shorten lessons. For instance, it takes one day to present the fire safety, truck, and smoke house to the morning class of 40 and the afternoon class of 33. It’s also a full session for riding the school bus to visit the police station, court, and Wendy’s plus do an evacuation drill so children won’t be scared when it happens during the first few weeks of school.
What excites the students the most? Of course, it’s the fire department and the police. Youngsters are drawn to the school resource officer and tell him, “I like your gun,” or “I like your taser, handcuffs.” According to Beckwith, they are inquisitive, and they do absorb information. When the Kidz First Advocacy Center talks about children having five trusted people to go to such as their parents, grandparents, and others. They all chose Beckwith as their fifth trusted person. “We are laying the foundation for new experiences,” said Deverick. “Everything we do, we want to be examples of how to do things safely. If I can, I will turn just about everything into a safety lesson. Our philosophy is always safety first.” What may seem mundane to some, such as proper scissors and walking not running feet can be important for youngsters to know.
The children attending Safety Town are never forced to do anything they don’t want to do. For instance, the smake house was a little daunting, the school bus made some anxious, and the invitation to sit in an ambulance was refused by three of the students. Beckwith related that one little girl that was in the ambulance at Safety Town was involved in a car accident the next day when an ambulance appeared so this helped her be more familiar and she was fine.
To Deverick, bringing real life situations to youngsters is deeply satisfying and she is a big advocate of Safety Town. To Beckwith, if his work at Safety Town can prohibit even one accident or one child from being hurt, then it is all worth it because it makes a difference.
Certainly, there will be 73 bright-eyed, eager pre-schoolers ready to enjoy their first year attending the Vermilion Local Schools this fall. Thanks to the community, parents, businesses, dedicated teachers and aides, the police department, guest speakers, and individual and organization donors.