It’s back to school time for the 2,000 or so students who attend one of Leaside’s five elementary schools and Anika Brophy has a message for each of them: “Walk or ride your bike to school and stay safe.”
The twelve-year-old, who lives on MacNaughton Rd. and is entering grade seven at St. Anselm’s, is part of her school’s Eco Team. The team came up with three goals last school year. The first two concerned reducing waste. “We noticed that a lot of stuff wasn’t going in the right bins, either garbage or recycling,” said Anika, “so we had a competition to try to change that. We also raised money for a water bottle filler to reduce the number of plastic bottles. In the end we cut the school’s waste in half.”
Their third goal was to get more kids walking or riding their bikes to school more often.
Everyone agrees that more active kids are healthier kids. But why is this also an “eco” goal? “Because when more kids walk or ride to school that means there are fewer cars on the road and less pollution,” Anika explains. “Also, less traffic around the school means it’s safer for the kids who are walking or riding their bikes.”
Anika and the Eco Team are not the only ones promoting this message in Leaside schools. Canada Walks, in partnership with MetroLinx, has been working with area schools to get more kids walking, cycling or taking public transit to school for child health and environmental reasons. Toronto’s school boards only bus students living more than about 1.5 kilometres from their school, so very few Leaside students are bused. An informal survey conducted by Canada Walks found that more than half of area students are still driven to school by a parent some or most of the time. They’re hoping to reduce that number.
Jillian Walsh has been delivering the same message with a focus on safety. She is the mother of seven-year old Georgia Walsh who was struck and killed at Millwood and McRae in July 2014. “Our fear after the accident was that the message to parents would be your children can’t walk a block,” says Walsh, “but we want children to be able to have the independence to grow and develop. We want more kids to walk and ride to school and to do so safely.”
Walsh says she wanted to honour Georgia by doing something that would combine fundraising for a tangible community project (see Playground Update, page 21) with promoting road and pedestrian safety awareness. “I partnered with Valerie Wood, who is immersed in the world of preventing accidents – and together we made safety presentations in 14 area schools this past June.” The schools included Bennington Heights, Bessborough, Northlea, Rolph Road and St. Anselm’s, and three local nursery schools.
“We tailored the presentation to the age of the students, and the focus was twofold: our story of loss, combined with a message of hope. Sometimes the safety message alone, when not tied to a story like Georgia’s loss, doesn’t resonate. We wanted to ensure that this kind of loss doesn’t happen to other children, and to say it doesn’t have to because Georgia’s accident was preventable.”
Walsh says that Wood’s part of the presentations “was aimed at empowering the kids; we’ve got to start the conversation about distracted driving and a child can be the most effective, impactful voice.”
This means speaking up when a child sees a parent reach for the phone while driving. “At each school we asked, ‘how many of you have been in the car when someone has been texting or emailing?’” Walsh relates. “And at every school, almost every single hand has gone up. It’s an epidemic. In a world where adults are supposed to be the mentors and role models, when they get called out by their kids, the likelihood of a change in behaviour increases exponentially.”
Anika Brophy heard the presentation by Walsh and Wood at St. Anselm’s: “It was very helpful,” she says. “By the end everyone was ready to stand up to dangerous situations – not just drivers in cars, but also pedestrians who are using phones or earbuds. They are a huge part of the problem too. They can’t hear if a car is honking or they don’t pay attention to what’s around them and someone could get hurt again.” Anika added that “after the presentation we felt ready to speak out against people creating dangerous situations.”
Anika and others from St. Anselm school will get a chance to do just that in an organised way later this fall. School principal Richard Walo confirms that his students will be assisting Toronto Police in conducting a safety blitz targeting bad driver behaviour in Leaside. “An officer will stop the vehicles for a chat, they may or may not issue a warning about an infraction, and then the safety message will come from a grade seven or eight student. We’re working with the police liaison officer on the date – it will probably be in late September.”
“Coming from a child, adults are more likely to listen and to change their behaviour,” says Walsh. “We would love the same stigma that’s associated with drinking and driving to be associated with distracted driving – and clearly we’re not there yet – but it’s an evolution.”