BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - Councilwoman Jeanne Kingsley issued a heartfelt plea for a few residents to step forward to run a Safe Routes to School (SRTS) program in the township.
Not doing so is "leaving a significant amount of money on the table," she said. She referred to Chatham and New Providence, both of which have been quite successful using volunteers to earn grant money to build sidewalks, repair and build new paths and do other projects to encourage children to walk or bike to school.
Chatham, which first began working on SRTS in 2011, received a grant for $578,000 in 2014 to build sidewalks along Lafayette Avenue and on Spring Street to the back path from Southern Boulevard School. At that time, that was the largest grant ever given by SRTS in the state. Over the years, Chatham has received more than $1 million in grants said Kathy Abbott, the co-chair of Chatham's SRTS Committee.
The base of their volunteers include two representatives from each school, usually they are on the "Green Team" at their schools, and are involved in other green initiatives, she said.
This year, New Providence, which started its SRTS program in about 2005 received a grant for $462,000.
The SRTS program is a program under the Federal Highway Administration that aims to improve the health of children of all abilities by encouraging them to walk and bike to school. In New Jersey, the State Department of Transportation works with local communities to fulfill the goal of making walking and riding to school a safe and fun alternative that encourages children to be more physically active and reduces fuel consumption, air pollution and the amount of traffic around schools.
While it is a federal program, the work is done on the local level by volunteers who are helped by school officials, teachers, members of the police and DPW departments and more.
New Providence resident Cecile Seth, who is co-chairperson of the New Providence SRTS team, credited Donna Zane, her co-chairperson, with starting the program "when her son was in pre-K. He is now in tenth grade." Zane's focus was centered around SRTS programs at Allen W. Roberts School but, after seeing what they had accomplished with the program, Seth called Zane and asked "how I could get Salt Brook School doing a 'Walk to School Day.'" Seth said In the spirit of "friendly cooperation" they turned a one-school project into a district-wide one.
To hear Seth tell the story, the fourth and fifth grade Girl Scouts were looking for a "Journey Project," and, after hearing about the successful "Walk to School Day. They did the first one all by themselves," she said. The first Salt Brook School Walk to School Day took place in the fall of 2013. To do it, they talked to teachers, the principal and president of the Salt Brook School PTO, made all the signs themselves, and got others involved. The Boy Scouts even held a successful food drive along the route and the Girl Scouts created a special patch for their spring 2014 walk.
New Providence has even created interactive maps, so people can find their way around town on paths and sidewalks, and drop off zones away from schools where children can walk together to their school. Those bright flags at pedestrian crossings -- those are another innovation brought to the borough by SRTS volunteers.
"The place to start is with one event," Seth said. Guidance is available from TransOptions, a non-profit group that helps with special projects such as SRTS. The important thing is to keep accurate data each step of the way. Documenting the efforts pays off, as does getting students walking and biking. "Essentially, you're rewarding towns to use their sidewalks" and you're "walking your way to money," she said.
Which is Kingsley's point, by not being part of the program, the township is overlooking financial help to build new sidewalks and repair or build paths. Volunteers who step forward will help get the program off the ground. Township employees can help, but the main push for the program has to start with volunteers from the schools. "We need to get our residents to care about sidewalks and paths," she said. "It has to be driven within the neighborhoods," she explained it.
Kingsley said she has "been speaking on this for two years. We really need parents to come forward."
Councilman Marc Faecher, in response to her comments that it takes an enormous amount of data to fill out the application and to file for a grant said, "Why can't we do the survey ourself?"
Kingsley said that it wasn't just one survey that needed to be done, but records, complete with data, need to be kept on a regular basis. In the end, she said, "It takes a lot of organization."
To learn more about SRTS, check out the articles on StemShoots.com, which includes a lot of ideas on how to create and run walking and biking events. To volunteer to help, contact Jeanne Kingsley via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.