Teens Helping Teens, One Ride at a Time

Jason Zide, left, and Andrew Palmer, lead the Safe Rides program based at Mission Hospital. Photo by Ted Reckas.

Navigating the eerily quiet hallways of Mission Hospital Laguna Beach on almost any Friday or Saturday night during the school year are several Laguna Beach High School students. From 10 p.m. to 1:30 a.m., their destination is a small, nondescript room, barely large enough to accommodate a conference table and chairs. It is unexceptional in every way except for the room’s inhabitants.


The four volunteers on duty each have different tasks, but all took an oath to not divulge any information about their student clients. The three students serve either as dispatcher, driver, or navigator alongside an adult supervisor, who helps them make judgment calls. The tiny call center field pleas from fellow students who need transportation, whether because they are under the influence of alcohol or drugs or because they are stranded by unforeseen circumstances. Those who call 499-7522 know that a fellow student will answer the phone and another couple of students dispatched to deliver them home safely, a free transaction carried out in confidence.


The no-questions asked transportation service is the result of an inspired collaboration between caring teens, adult volunteers and hospital administrators that revived the Laguna Beach Safe Rides program beginning in December 2009. The all-volunteer, teen-run program has safely delivered home about 115 teens since the beginning of this school year.


Safe Rides boasts 44 student volunteers (26 seniors, 14 juniors and four sophomores) and 14 adult volunteers, according to Mission Hospital administrator Maggie Sullivan.


“We don’t condone teen drinking,” said LBHS senior Andrew Palmer, who spearheaded the current program with the help of fellow senior Jason Zide, addressing the chief complaint of detractors. But, he added, since teen partying occurs despite prevention programs, the goal of Safe Rides is to minimize potential consequences. “It’s not a taxi service. It’s a last resort to make sure there are no injuries.”


Palmer, whose father is a trauma neurosurgeon at Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo, is in a position to know about injuries. He also volunteered in the emergency room for a bar mitzvah project when he was 13, which was when he first learned of the Safe Rides program, established at the Mission Viejo facility 18 years ago.


Trauma center founder Dr. Tom Shaver began Safe Rides there following the deaths of three teens in a prom night collision in 1989 where the driver was inebriated. Shaver’s goal reached beyond treating trauma center victims to preventing them in the first place, said Georginne Mercado, the hospital’s injury prevention coordinator in Mission Viejo, who has run South County Safe Rides for 18 years, which now includes 11 Orange County schools.

“With Mission coming to the Laguna Beach campus, we wanted to reach out to the Laguna Beach community as well,” said Mercado, especially since a similar program in Laguna ended about five years ago.


Coincidentally, Palmer, then a junior, was interested in rejuvenating Safe Rides here and talked it over with his father. He met with Mercado and the high school principal and recruited Zide. “It took a lot of work,” Palmer admitted, but the program was running midway through the last school year. Invaluable help was provided by Bill Parrish of the Laguna Beach Rotary Club, who recruited adult volunteers for the program.


That Safe Rides is teen-run and confidential are the key elements to its success. “All kids are scared of judgment from adults,” said Palmer. “They know they can trust other students at the high school.”


A partial reason for the demise of an earlier Safe Rides program in Laguna was due to the call center’s location in a room at the high school. While the program still ensured the confidentiality of its clients, there was a perception among students that it was monitored by administrators and students didn’t like to call for rides, said Jeannie Harrell, the high school’s community relations spokeswoman, who ran Safe Rides from about 2000 to 2005.


“We wouldn’t be seeing in our trauma center what we do see if the kids were confident enough to call adults or parents,” agreed Mercado, who said she continually encourages parents to talk to their children about the consequences of accidents.


For all of the seriousness of their task, a night at the Safe Rides call center is an upbeat experience. On a recent Friday night, Maggie Sullivan supervised junior and first-time volunteer Camille Lopez, dispatcher. for the night. Tommy Renner, a junior and driver for the night was teamed with his sister Maggie, a sophomore and the navigator. They were out putting $10 worth of gas in their car, donated by a local station, and returned with snacks before heading out again to pick up pizza donated by BJ’s Pizza.


When the innocuous white phone rang, Camille answered, got the necessary information and then turned to Tommy and Maggie to give them their mission. In the old days, the kids would play board games, said Harrell.


Even so, there are rules of engagement. The safety of all of the youth, volunteers and clients, is of utmost importance, stressed Sullivan. The driver and navigator, for example, are always a boy-girl team to ensure that female passengers feel safe and they must remain in the car during a pick up. They can pick up only two passengers at a time. To prevent teens from using the program as a party-hopping service, each teen is allowed only one ride to their home on a given night.


While volunteers and clients agree that it’s a great service, now the challenge is finding volunteers to keep it going. Palmer and Zide, graduating seniors, initially recruited friends and acquaintances. They joined forces with the Interact Club, Rotary Club’s teen arm. Tommy Renner, its president, helped them recruit a new wave of volunteers. But with 26 outgoing seniors, the need to recruit new volunteers from the lower grades is crucial for the program’s continuation.


Harrell agreed that maintaining a steady flow of volunteers was her biggest challenge. She was often the adult on duty during her tenure running the program. Her two high-school-aged kids were often recruited as student volunteers.


Palmer is passionate about keeping the program going. “We give a lot of rides each weekend,” he said. “It’s clear that the community needs it.” When he attends college next year, he plans to look into similar programs on campus.


Email questions about Safe Rides to [email protected].


Adult and Student Volunteers Needed for Safe Rides

There will be a Safe Rides volunteer training session from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 5, in the community room at Mission Hospital Laguna Beach. Local adults and high school students are encouraged to attend.

In addition to completing the training, student Safe Rides volunteers must complete an application, which requires their parents’ signatures. Student volunteer drivers need a full license. Adult volunteers need to go through a background check and must complete a brief online Youth Protection Training session through the Boy Scouts’ venturing program.

To register for training and/or for more information, contact Maggie Sullivan at 949-364-1400, ext. 7753.

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