Keeping kids safe: Hamilton’s Safety Town has taught generations for nearly 50 years

A new Hamilton safety program offered this summer helped give 8-year-old Eleni Frederick the confidence to ride a bicycle, and the feeling of freedom that comes with it.

“Officer (Kristy) Collins was amazing,” Eleni’s mom, Kara Frederick, said about the main instructor. “On Monday, my daughter kind of held back and was shy, and didn’t want to participate. By Tuesday, her confidence was built, and she loved riding her bike, and she learned all kinds of safety protocols that Officer Collins shared with the kids.”

By the end of the week, Eleni, a third-grader at St. Joseph Consolidated School, “was flying around on her bike, which was awesome,” Frederick said.

This was the 49th summer of Hamilton’s “Safety Town Village,” where 4-and-5-year-olds spend two hours a day for a week learning such things as how to stop at stop signs and traffic lights. They learn how to be good pedestrians and cross the street. They are taught gun safety, fire safety, stranger-danger and have a graduation ceremony on Fridays.

Children are taught in a village with mini houses, stop signs, railroad crossings and traffic signals.

The non-profit Greater Hamilton Safety Council started the program in 1972, with Hamilton Police Officer Bob Gentry teaching it from then until his death in 2012. In 2013, the city renamed Powerhouse Park “Officer Bob Gentry Park” for the beloved “Officer Bob.”

“We didn’t know what we were going to do after Officer Bob died, because he was so successful — the children loved him,” said Betty Jordan, acting director of the safety council. “But Kristy stepped right in there, and just fell right into that role beautifully. She does a phenomenal job with those kids.”

This was the first year the safety council offered bicycle safety to 25 children ages 6 to 8. It was so popular, they will add a second week of those classes next year, with online signups beginning April 1 on the safety council’s website.

After Jordan posted signups this year on April 1, “in two days it was filled up,” Jordan said. Within two weeks, all the slots for 4-and-5-year-olds were filled.

“It takes a whole community to make this work, and make the program successful,” Jordan said. Butler County, AAA, businesses and the Lindenwald Kiwanis Club are some of the sponsors. Many volunteers also help, along with the city’s police and fire departments.

“We have grandparents that bring their grandchildren, because they went through it, and they remember what they were taught,” Jordan said.

Joan Trent, now 34, fondly recalls his Safety Town experience.

“I remember feeling like I was driving a car because of the way they did it with roads,” Trent said. “My parents had me take it before I was allowed to ride far from home. Was excited to be able to ride my bike to Filmore (Elementary) in 5th grade.”

At the request of parents, the safety council and Collins started a new program for 6-to-8-year-olds. Meijer donated $800 toward bicycles, with thyssenkrupp Bilstein of America giving $500 for bikes and helmets. Retired Hamilton officer Rob Payne, who has bicycle expertise, fit kids on their bikes and taught about helmet safety.

The program is partly funded by the annual Officer Bob Gentry Golf Scramble in June.

Frederick, who had never met Collins before the classes, was quite impressed.

“She is very patient — very patient — with these little ones, and when they had questions, she made them all feel like their question was super-important,” Frederick said. “They all listened to her very well.”

“Even today, Eleni will quote Officer Collins, and that’s several weeks later,” Frederick said. She was telling her mother about online safety, and the dangers of talking to strangers on the computer.

Every spring, except for the past two because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Collins teaches seat-belt safety to every third grader in the city, in public and private schools.

The non-profit safety council itself is 79 years old, founded in 1942. Among other things, it gives remedial driving courses to teens who have driving problems, gives demonstrations of wrecked vehicles at high schools to warn teens about drunk driving, and also teaches courses that help companies meet continuing-education requirements by the state and federal governments.

The Safety Town program was founded in Mansfield, Ohio, in 1937 and later was transformed into a more comprehensive program in 1964 by a Bedford, Ohio, nursery school teacher.

Collins, meanwhile, received city government’s 2021 Bernard J. “Jack” Kirsch “Passion for Hamilton Award” recipient.

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