CERES — Neighborhood schools get a neighborly twist here, with parent-led groups of kids banding together once a week to walk to school.
The Walking School Bus program had its kickoff celebration, complete with fresh fruit and freebies, at Sinclear Elementary on Wednesday. Parents and students got free breakfast at the school cafeteria and free tickets for a raffle of toys and bike helmets. Adkison and Caswell elementary schools will have theirs next week.
But the weekly walks, easily spotted by the trademark bright yellow jackets, have been underway for more than 400 youngsters and 90 parent volunteers.
Diana Vargas, clad in dazzling yellow, leads her two girls and their schoolmates down Morgan Road to Sinclear every Tuesday. “I like to be involved,” she said, and this way she knows the kids get to campus safely. Plus, she’s getting to know her neighbors.
Mom Adriana Velazquez said she saw too many kids walking to school alone, so she stepped up to lead a group from her block each week. As fellow volunteer Luz Curicl put it, “I didn’t want kids to have trouble.”
Safety concerns also brought Amanda and Jorge Rochin to the program. With their four children, the family makes a “bus” even before others join in. “There’s a ton of traffic here in the morning,” Amanda Rochin said. She likes walking the route and getting some exercise.
“It gets their blood flowing and they’re ready for school,” said Dora Lepe, a first-time Sinclear walking-bus volunteer.
For 10-year-old Alexis Becerra, the “bus” starts the day off right. “I get to walk with friends,” he said. Sister Destiny, 7, agreed it was a friendlier way to get to school.
Ceres police traffic Officer Jason Coley sees the program as a learning tool that’s working. “It’s a great program for teaching kids pedestrian and bicycle safety,” he said between posing for pictures with kids and answering questions.
Coley said he sees students sharing the road more responsibly. “We see more helmet use. It’s definitely carrying over, even into teen years,” he said.
The program covers five elementary schools – Don Pedro, La Rosa, Sinclear, Adkison and Caswell – each with their own day of the week to walk, said program coordinator Lourdes Perez. A couple of the schools have no bus service, and a couple others are in county islands without sidewalks. Walking School Bus participation is up this year, Perez said, meaning more walking and biking families, and less traffic congestion at the schools.
The program pulls together community groups supporting fitness and safety. Funding comes from a three-year grant from the National Safe Routes to School and the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program. Local farmers provide fresh fruit. Area hospitals pitch in mascots and safety materials. Also involved are the Ceres Unified School District, Ceres Police Department and Ceres Partnership for Healthy Children.