Martha’s Vineyard SafeRides’s lack of funds may strand teens

Martha’s Vineyard SafeRides’s lack of funds may strand teens

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A teenage girl, along for the ride with a group of friends, finds herself at a weekend party she hadn’t planned to attend. When a guy she meets there comes on too strong and offers her a ride home, she is uneasy. But when she looks around for her friends, they’ve all left.

Since 1998, SafeRides has given Island teens in such unsafe or uncertain situations an alternative way to get home. Although it is not affiliated with Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS), the student-run organization offers rides to high school students on most Friday and Saturday nights, from 10 pm to 2 am, no questions asked.

Unfortunately, as reported by EmmaJean Holley in The High School View in The Times on January 13, the valuable program is in jeopardy because of budget shortfalls.

SafeRides typically starts up in November and runs through prom and graduation season. This year, however, unless SafeRides can come up with funds by the end of February, for insurance costs and monthly cell phone bills, many teens may find themselves without its safety net.

The Martha’s Vineyard SafeRides program, chartered under the sponsorship of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), is an offshoot of a program started in the early 1980s by a group of high school students, with help from the Boy Scouts, to combat teen deaths due to alcohol-related automobile accidents. Other high school and college groups expanded the program nationwide to provide free and confidential rides home to any young adult at risk, not just those in situations that involve alcohol or drugs, according to the BSA Cape Cod and Islands Council’s website.

Pam Carelli founded the Martha’s Vineyard SafeRides chapter and served as its adult adviser until about two years ago. Ms. Carelli told The Times in an interview in 2005 that the Island’s program grew out of the death of MVRHS senior Ryan Mone in a car crash on New Year’s Day 1998, in which alcohol was a factor. She proposed the idea of a student network that offered safe rides home, and the community supported her efforts.

Dollars for driving

Ben Retmier, age 26, is the new SafeRides adult supervisor this year. He has worked as an emergency medical technician (EMT) since 2007 for Tri-Town Ambulance Service and received certification as a paramedic last month.

A 2003 graduate of MVRHS, Mr. Retmier has come full circle at SafeRides. He started as a volunteer his sophomore year and worked as a driver every weekend the program operated his senior year.

Mr. Retmier took the reins from his mother, Kathy, the chapter’s supervisor for the past two years and an active leader in SafeRides since it began. “I’ve kind of always been around SafeRides,” he said. “It felt right, taking over.”

Mr. Retmier said his mom acts as his advisor. Since she continues to oversee the chapter’s funds and bookkeeping, he deferred financial questions to her.

Hard stop ahead

Since volunteers run the program, its only big expenses are liability insurance through the BSA and bills for cell phones used for communication between volunteer teen dispatchers and drivers, Ms. Retmier said. The Vineyard Hebrew Center generously allows the SafeRides program to operate its base station there free of charge.

The “bare bones” minimum to run SafeRides is $3,000, which pays for volunteers’ liability insurance through BSA, which costs about $30 a student, according to Ms. Retmier.

In the past, typically an average of 100 students signed up as volunteers, and SafeRides paid for their insurance coverage, which ran from February to February. However, Ms. Retmier said SafeRides organizers found that not all of the volunteers actually worked.

This school year, for the first time in its history, the SafeRides board agreed that volunteers should pay a $35 fee to participate, to help cover costs.

“Every other SafeRides program in the country charges for liability insurance, and we were one of the last to implement any sort of a charge,” Ms. Retmier said.

So far, only six of the new volunteers who signed up in November paid the $35 fee. A month ago Ms. Retmier paid three months of insurance for 20 new volunteers.

The bulk of the liability insurance payment, however, is due at the end of February, when coverage ends for volunteers who signed up in 2009.

“That’s why we know there’s a hard stop date if we aren’t able to raise the funds that we need, because if we don’t pay that money, the program can’t go on,” Ms. Retmier said.

“What I would like to do is have the kids take the responsibility and pay their $35,” she added. “If the kids who took the training paid their $35, our money problem is gone.”

If the chapter does come up with the money to pay for the insurance next month, then the program could start up again next November with coverage already in place.

How SafeRides works

A board of eight students, all girls this year, runs SafeRides. On a typical night, Mr. Retmier said, the program operates with one driving team of one male and one female. Three or four students staff the base, including one board member and dispatchers who answer the phone, take down the information, and call the driving team. There is always an adult volunteer present.

About 60 teen volunteers attended the initial training session in November, Mr. Retmier said, which included basic first aid. Although there is a good mix of ages, the chapter needs more male volunteers. There is also a shortage of drivers because they must be 18 and have a clean driving record, which reduces the pool of candidates. SafeRides relies on mostly seniors as drivers, because a junior operator’s license restricts teens under 18 from driving between the hours of 12:30 and 5 am without a parent in the car.

A common misperception about SafeRides is that the majority of teens that call for rides are drunk, the Retmiers said.

“Most of the people we pick up are completely fine; they just need a ride home,” Mr. Retmier said.

“There’s more parental apathy around here than I would like to see, and it usually ends up that the kids who need the rides are those whose parents won’t go and get them,” Ms. Retmier added.

About 30 adult volunteers currently participate, under the direction of Karen Bressler.

“These are the parents who signed up with their kids, who already went through the high school and the program, and they’re still helping out with SafeRides,” Mr. Retmier noted.

The chapter would welcome involvement by some new parent volunteers, who can sign up to work on a different night than their children to avoid embarrassing them, his mother added.

Fundraising efforts

For its first few years, SafeRides received state funding, which was subsequently cut. After that, the program relied on donations, grants, and occasional fundraisers.

Although the SafeRides board was divided on the precedent of charging a fee this year, Ms. Retmier told them it would enable them to run the program in the absence of generous donations.

Although volunteers said they want to work harder this year at fundraising, Ms. Retmier said, their time is limited.

“All the kids in SafeRides are the cream of the crop, the leaders in the school, and the ones who are the stars of the play and music and sports, and they simply have other things to do,” she said. “I completely understand that, but at some point, we have to either run a program or not.”

On February 22, Sharky’s Cantina in Edgartown has offered to host a fundraiser and donate a portion of the night’s proceeds to SafeRides, Mr. Retmier said.

In the meantime, its mission continues.

For more information or to volunteer, call 508-696-6113. To make a tax-deductible donation to SafeRides, a 501(c)(3) organization, send a check to P.O. Box 9000, Suite 166, Edgartown 02539.