SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – In July 1976, the Borough of South Plainfield held its first ever Safety Town program. Back then, 125 preschoolers completed the two-week age-appropriate safety awareness course held at the former South Plainfield Board of Education offices on Cromwell Place.
"The goal was to introduce a safety service and community leadership program in cooperation with the South Plainfield Police Department and school district,” said Lee Burke, a former borough resident and member of the United States Junior Chamber – otherwise known as the Jaycees – who, along with Sue Block of the Jaycee-ettes, worked to bring the National Safety Town Center to South Plainfield almost 42 summers ago. “Following the National Safety Town Center motto, we introduced children to valuable safety information."
At the time of its inception, South Plainfield’s Safety Town program took place at what it is now Grant School. Safety lessons were also taught through classroom activities as well as field trips to the firehouse and from visits with borough police officers, including the late South Plainfield Police Captain Tulio P. Capparelli. Additionally, children learned to safely cross the street on foot and on Big Wheels, practicing on an outdoor course set up on Lake Street and designed to resemble a miniature ‘safe town’ complete with intersections, roads, stop signs, houses, traffic lights, a railroad crossing and pedestrian walks.
“Kids learned about stranger danger, fire and bicycle safety, how to safely ride in a car, and other things to stay safe, like crossing the street and traffic lights,” said Burke, noting that his daughter, Laura Ann, was one of the first Safety Town participants.
Back when the program started in 1976, Safety Town was sponsored by the South Plainfield Jaycees and Jaycee-ettes Jr. Three years later, the Junior Women's Club of South Plainfield took over, running the program for 25 years with its last summer offering in 1995. There were no Safety Town programs held in 1996 and 1997 and, in 1998, the program returned under the sponsorship of the South Plainfield Department of Recreation.
Today, South Plainfield’s Safety Town program is held each July, the PAL gym transformed into a ‘safe town’ that includes roadways, traffic lights, and stop signs as well as homes and stores which, in 2015, were given new life thanks to a Junior Bronze Award service project completed by Girl Scout Troop #65129. Over the course of the two-week session, volunteers – many who attended Safety town themselves – teach children the dos and don'ts of pedestrian and bike safety. Water, gun, and poison/drug safety is also taught through a partnership between the borough’s fire and police departments.
While who the sponsoring organization of the program is and where it is held may have changed over the years, Safety Town's message has remained the same: to teach children how to be and stay safe.
“Safety Town is a fun and educational program for our town's children,” said Courtney Hoffman, a Franklin School teacher who ran Safety Town in 2018. “While interacting with their peers, the students are learning safety rules. It is so important for children to feel safe in our town and know who our first responders are.”
“Introducing children at an early age to safety skills in a fun, age appropriate way is extremely important in the world today,” added Kiley Squier, a Franklin School teacher who, as a teenager, volunteered at Safety Town and also led the program for the PAL from 2002 to 2016. “Children need to feel confident that they can respond and react appropriately in an emergency situation. The Safety Town program does all this and more for the children of South Plainfield.”
Safety Town was founded in 1937 by the late Frend Boals, a policeman in Mansfield, OH, as a traffic safety education program for pre-kindergartners. In 1964, Dorothy Chlad, a former nursery school teacher residing in Bedford, OH, worked to expand the program, establishing the non-profit National Safety Town Center and developing Safety Town into a comprehensive safety education program for four- and five-year olds.
Back then, there were approximately 20 Safety Town programs offered throughout the country; as of 2013, said Chlad, some 3,500 programs are held annually throughout the United States and in more than 30 other countries.
“Our goal was always to help build an age-appropriate safety program throughout different communities,” said Chlad, who in addition to volunteering her time as founder and president of the now Sarasota, FL-based National Safety Town Center, is also a published author of several age-appropriate safety books for kids. “I am delighted it is continuing and so proud of all those people who did – and still do – so much to keep the program going. The message is still so important, even more so today; it should be part of every community.”
“I am very proud of my former town and greatly appreciative of those who were part of the program in 1976 and those who kept it going after," added Burke, who following the program’s inception in South Plainfield went on to serve as Central New Jersey State Director of the National Safety Town Center. "The program was and still is so important to children in the community."
For additional information on the National Safety Town Center, visit http://nationalsafetytown.com. For more information on South Plainfield’s Safety Town, including registration for the 2019 session, which will be held at the PAL in July, contact the Department of Recreation at (908) 226-7713.
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