Q&A: Involving High School Students in Safe Routes to School

For this issue, we are pleased to interview Heidi Iyall, a health educator for Mason County Public Health in Shelton, Wash. Heidi spearheaded a program that enabled high school student volunteers to organize a bicycle helmet distribution program at Olympic Middle School with the help of Mason Matters, a local non-profit health organization. The program sought to increase the number of children wearing helmets in the low-income, rural county and consisted of three main elements:

  • collecting helmet donations from local businesses,
  • leading a bike safety assembly that promoted safety and physical fitness and
  • organizing a bike helmet distribution at the local state park. 

Thanks to mini-grant funding from the National Center and donations, the students distributed and fit 168 helmets. A student survey found an increase from 19 percent to 50 percent of Olympic Middle School students wearing helmets and a substantial increase in helmet fit and safety knowledge after the program.

Q:    How did you identify the lack of helmet usage as a significant problem?

A:    We have a skate park and a culture of bike riding in our community, but bike safety awareness is low. Through this project, we focused our attention on Olympic Middle School, where 67.2 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced lunch.  Many of these youth have a bike, scooter or skate board, but do not use helmets.  This may be due to lack of money or a community perception that wearing safety gear is not cool.  According to the 2010 Healthy Youth Survey, 56 percent of 6th grade and 79 percent of 8th grade students reported “rarely or never” wearing helmets while riding a bike. 

Additionally, we have an amazing bicycle giveaway program in Shelton – the Mason Transit Community Center partners with the City of Seattle to acquire bikes that have been left on Seattle Transit buses and never claimed.  Bikes are distributed, for free, to low-income youth in the community.  The Community Center is able to give youth free bikes, but no helmets to ride safely.  We felt that lack of helmet use was a community health concern, and we wanted to eliminate the financial barriers that prevent many of our community’s youth from wearing helmets.  Additionally, we wanted to change the perception of wearing bike helmets and make them “cool” to wear by creating a local culture that promotes bike safety.

Q:    Your program has a Helmet Crew. What is that?

A:    Hannah Franks, who works with homeless or at-risk high school youth at Shelton High School, organized a group of students to promote helmet use. The group became known as the Helmet Crew.  She had a group of students who needed to complete a senior project in order to fulfill a graduation requirement, and felt they could benefit from adult mentors to help them plan activities to reach their project goal.  We had more students join the Helmet Crew as word got out about the project and as Hannah identified students that needed additional support with completing their senior project. 

Q:    How did the students affect the project?

A:    Having students deliver the message about the importance of wearing bike helmets made the project more fun and impactful.  Students created an event flyer and Helmet Crew logo that appealed to a youthful audience.  They recruited their peers to DJ a bike rodeo event and to serve healthy refreshments and provide entertainment during the event, which included semi-pro BMX bikers and skateboarders doing stunts while wearing helmets. 

The students chose multi-sport helmets to give away, knowing more youth would prefer that style and it would have a broader reach, appealing to bikers, skateboarders and scooter riders.  The students solicited sticker donations from skateboarding companies so that youth could decorate their new helmets with alternative sport logos.  The students found video footage of a professional BMX biker who suffered a traumatic brain injury, feeling that it would be powerful to have an alternative sports star delivering the bike helmet message during the assembly.  The students used Facebook and local media to get the word out about their event and to provide event updates quickly when the weather forced us to change venues.   

Q:    What advice can you give about seeking donations?

A:    Identify organizations that have missions in alignment with your project goals to solicit donations.  Having the youth write a donation request letter, follow up with a phone call and write thank you cards helped donors understand what they were supporting and feel like their donation went to good use.  We received donations or discounted products from a local tribe, a bicycle club, local EMS and fire departments, a couple of skateboard companies, a few grocers, local media, a T-shirt shop, bookstore, a print shop and a few community members.  We also applied for and received a mini-grant from the National Center for Safe Routes to School. We partnered with Mason Matters to provide the financial oversight.  Their non-profit status made all donations to our project tax-deductible. 

Q:    How did the high school students benefit from this project?

A:    I think the high school students who led this project felt a sense of pride and accomplishment in completing their academic goal and doing something meaningful in their community.  Many of these students have not had the support they need to be academically successful.  It was powerful for them to be successful academically and see their idea evolve into a successful community event.  One senior said a middle school student approached him later and said, “That was the best assembly we’ve ever had!”  Another senior wrote such an impressive paper about the project and its community impact that we used it as our final report for the National Center mini-grant.