Take me home tonight

One year since it first began, Wilton’s SafeRides program is hugely successful, drawing more than 100 high school volunteers Friday and Saturday nights during the school year.

Headquartered at the Trackside Teen Center, the program provides a volunteer environment where high school students can have fun, relax, and provide an important service to the Wilton community: making sure students don’t put themselves in regrettable driving situations.

Every weekend night, 15 students hang out in the teen center playing video games, working on homework, and socializing with fellow volunteers as they wait for calls to start coming in.

Last Friday, the first call came in around 11 and two volunteers, one boy and one girl, were off to give a ride.

Contrary to popular belief, volunteer Josh Reeve said at SafeRides headquarters Friday, Jan. 16, “it’s not just a service for drunk teenagers.”

“It’s for anyone worried about getting into an unsafe situation. There are many situations that don’t involve drinking where someone feels unsafe to drive,” he said.

Citing an incident where a babysitter called the program after she felt unsafe getting driven home by her intoxicated employer, volunteers at the program are proud of their community service effort — but SafeRides is about having fun, too.

“I like the people and I like helping people in need,” Josh said. “The Planet Pizza pizza we get every night doesn’t hurt, either.”

One of the program’s organizers, Lisa Schneider, was actually involved in the country’s very first SafeRides program, which was run by Darien High School starting in 1981.

She said one of the most striking differences between that original program and Wilton High’s is the variety of calls volunteers respond to.

“What’s so interesting is the difference between the 1980s and now. The ‘designated driver’ is such a key part in how these kids plan their weekends. It was never that way when I was growing up — that’s why we needed SafeRides.

“Now it’s almost like a safety net for kids,” she said. “They’re already very serious about having a designated driver, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out. It’s just an added safety net for the kids.”

The flexibility of situations actually serves to make the program interesting for its volunteers, said SafeRides member Tucker Bendix.

“Not every call is a uniform thing,” he said. “That’s what makes it interesting, it’s never repetitive.”

One weekend, he said, the program had eight cars at one party, though many of the calls don’t involve parties at all.

Certain restrictions apply to the SafeRides program. Volunteers won’t drive students to a party — only to their houses after a party — and will drive only high school age students. Discretion is always left to drivers in accepting or denying a patron.

Noting that the program has never turned away a patron for safety reasons in two years, Ms. Schneider said, “Volunteer safety is No. 1. If we get a call and someone is violent and [the drivers] don’t feel comfortable, [it’s their right] to not give a ride.”

Even if a student were to be refused a ride, however, “steps would be taken to make sure they don’t drive themselves,” the organizer said. “Maybe we would send another car to assess the situation, or talk to a parent volunteer. We’ll do our best to find a backup solution. It’s never happened in two years, but volunteer safety is equally important as getting someone home.”

No personal information or names are required to be given for a ride, as the service is completely confidential.

Though Mark Ketley, executive director of the teen center, said Wilton High School’s administration was initially suspicious of a plan to bring SafeRides to Wilton, they have since come to see the program as a positive force in the community.

More than 100 juniors and seniors, the hardest group to attract to the teen center, volunteer with the program on an annual basis, Mr. Ketley said.

Twenty-five parents also volunteer with the program, which was first proposed by resident Mike Safko and his daughter Lauren, Ms. Schneider said. Both father and daughter spent many long hours convincing all of the major town boards to support the program.

“Mike and his daughter Lauren spent a lot of time putting all the logistics in place for this to even be a conversation among the town and the students,” Ms. Schneider said. “They put in a lot of legwork at a lot of town meetings. They really did a lot of amazing groundwork to get the support of the school, town, police, and the EMS before launching it with the students.”