It is ten o'clock on a Friday night and at first glance, it seems like an ordinary evening at the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center. Adults have returned home after services and their kids are getting ready to step out. A few stragglers remain, washing dishes, turning off lights and wiping down counters. After a few moments inside, however, laughter floats out of the library where a group of teenagers are setting up headquarters for the evening. Eventually, they too will head out to that night's parties, but they will not be there to hang out. They will be helping their classmates who have had too much to drink and are unfit to drive. They are part of a team of volunteers who give up a Friday or Saturday night with friends in order to make sure that others get home safely.
The students manning the phones at the Hebrew Center on this January night are there to kick off the first night of the 2006 SafeRides season. The student-run program provides a free and confidential ride home to any student of the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School who is not in a condition to drive safely or who wants to avoid being a passenger with an unsafe driver. In addition to providing rides to those who have been drinking, the SafeRides team also serves teens who are too tired to drive, do not feel safe getting into a car with a stranger, or just do not feel comfortable calling their parents at a late hour.
In 1998, Pam Carelli, an Island travel agent, founded the Island branch of SafeRides, a program that began in the early 1980s in Connecticut with help from The Boy Scouts of America. At the time, Ms. Carelli was co-chairman of the high school parent-teacher-student organization and had a daughter in the high school. She was determined to find a way to provide safe transportation for Island teens. "Kids need to be able to recognize when they're unsafe," Ms. Carelli says. "And they need to be able to change that. In a rural community, there aren't many options."
Ms. Carelli learned about the SafeRides program in the same year that high school senior Ryan Mone died in a New Year's Day car accident in which alcohol was a factor. She spent the next year and a half researching it and securing grants. The program that has emerged on the Vineyard is not sponsored by the high school, but nevertheless it is the hard work and dedication of high school students that has allowed it to function. "Pam is there to guide us," SafeRides co-president and high school senior David Holmberg says. "But she lets us do what we need to do because we're the ones using it."
When Ms. Carelli first proposed that the Island begin a SafeRides program, high school students responded positively. Their support for and trust in the program has only increased over time. Both Ms. Carelli and the student board members say the success of the program is tied directly to the steadfast commitment to anonymity. "Without ano-nymity," co-president and high school senior Stetson Nunes says, "the program would not function." When SafeRides first started, there was a perception that if a student called for a ride, word would eventually get back to their parents or to the high school. As time has passed, however, the students have come to trust the program and understand the commitment to anonymity and safety. "Most every kid in the high school has or will use it. Even I've used it," Mr. Holmberg says.
Despite the success of SafeRides - the program has taken over 500 calls and driven almost 6,000 miles since its founding - there have been hurdles. In 2003, a state budget crisis resulted in the slashing of grant money from the Massachusetts Service Alliance. Since then, SafeRides has relied solely on donations. And despite a large volunteer pool, the program has struggled to recruit drivers because of a Massachusetts law that prohibits drivers under 18 to be behind the wheel between midnight and 5 a.m. Last year, as a result, the program could not begin until March and had to cancel the service four times because of a lack of drivers. Ms. Carelli and board members have traveled to Boston and testified before lawmakers for a pilot program that would allow SafeRides members to drive after midnight when on duty. To date, no special legislation has been adopted.
Another struggle has been quelling the perception that by providing rides to students who may have been drinking, SafeRides encourages risky behavior. "We're not trying to get people to drink," Mr. Holmberg says. "We're trying to cut back on accidents. We're there to help."
The Youth Risk Behavior Survey, an anonymous survey administered to more than 1,000 Island students last April, attests to the problem of risky teenage behavior on Martha's Vineyard. According to survey results released in December, the percentage of Island high school students who reported drinking alcohol in the 30 days prior to the survey decreased from 64 per cent to 54 per cent over the last six years. Despite this downward trend, alcohol rates for Vineyard teens were roughly 10 per cent higher than averages statewide. The percentage of students who reported driving under the influence has not significantly changed over the past six years and has remained similar to state averages, although the number of high school students who reported riding with drivers who had been drinking had risen by four per cent since 2002. By participating in SafeRides, Island teens are in fact helping to combat the risky behavior documented by the survey.
The scene at the Hebrew Center on Friday night is a testament to the dedication of the students who run the program. They have come prepared for the evening - bags of chips and bottles of caffeinated soda cover the table, Nextel cell phones stand ready for calls, and a blanket has been stuffed in the corner in case anyone needs a quick nap. Each night that SafeRides operates, a student board member is present to oversee the evening operation. Two drivers - one male, one female - are ready to venture off to any Island town to pick up a caller, and two dispatchers stay at headquarters to field calls. An adult supervisor is also present.
The 100-plus students who participate in the program are as diverse as those who call in. "The volunteers range from jocks to regular bookworms, even to the pretty girls you'd never think would volunteer. Everyone is a part of SafeRides," Mr. Holmberg says. Despite their differences, each student who dedicates his time shares a desire to help his classmates and community. "They are kids who don't mind getting together for a good cause," Mr. Nunes says.
The students who run the program hardly have a lot of extra hours to kill. The six teens at SafeRides on Friday night are all honors students, they hold after-school jobs, are on prom committees and sports teams. They are busy, but they also know how to have fun. As they sit around waiting for calls, one tells another to expect calls from a party that he has just left. "Nine out of 10 times someone who's [at SafeRides] will know the party or know someone there. That's a benefit of a small community," Mr. Nunes says.
Friday night showed signs of being a slow evening. As the minutes passed, the staff munched on chips, sipped sodas, and talked about everything from car crashes to the old SafeRides record book which had recently been retired to Ms. Carelli's files and had included program statistics as well as notes. One read: "Pam! We need more snacks!" Once the clock struck midnight, however, the pace picked up. By the end of the evening, the team had taken 12 calls. Mr. Holmberg finally crawled into bed at 3:30 that morning, after taking the last call at 1:30. Although the night was particularly busy, there are evenings that end quietly, the way this one began. But busy or slow, SafeRides students underscore the importance of the program. "Even if we help one kid, we've been successful," Mr. Nunes says.
SafeRides runs Friday and Saturday nights from 10 p.m. until 2 a.m. The phone number is 508-939-9100. Donations can be sent to P.O. Box 9000 #166, Edgartown MA 02539.