by Donia Moore
Twenty-four years ago, before Uber, before Lyft, a Safe Rides program was started by a group of concerned parents, students and community members. It met in Mission Viejo at Mission Hospital, which still supports it to this day. It was born out of hope following the sadness of a catastrophic vehicle accident and a young drunk driver that claimed the lives of five students on their way to a dance one night in 1987 in San Juan Capistrano. Friends and parents still bring flowers and candles to the site in remembrance.
When Georgi Mercado, Safe Rides Adult Coordinator, talks about the devastation of the family members and friends left behind, you can still hear the sadness in her voice as she recalls that evening. The students were brought to the Trauma Center at Mission Viejo Hospital where Georgi was on site, working with then - Trauma Director Dr. Thomas Shaver.
What is Safe Rides?
“This is not an organization that condones or encourages students to drink or come under the influence of harmful substances. The goal is to get every student home safely” says Georgi.
When I was in high school I went to a party with a family friend who was a little older than I was. The party was beginning to get raucous and I became concerned and wanted to go home but my friend did not and tried to bully me into staying. Fortunately, I had very smart parents who had told me to call if I ever felt uncomfortable on a date and they would be my safety net. I called and they came and got me. Not everyone has that ability and occasionally parents are unavailable. Safe Rides can be your student’s safety net.
This high school peer-to-peer club operates on weekends during the school year from 10 pm to 1:15am. It really kicks into high gear around Spring Break or on holidays when parties and other festive events are going strong. It’s a great way for teens to meet in a positive atmosphere and earn community service hours.
“These two nights and hours of operation were selected as they were the most popular times when teens may need our service. If partying students find themselves in an uncomfortable situation - either stranded, or with their friends who have been drinking, or in other unsafe situations- they have a confidential place to call for a ride home”, says Georgi.
The Orange County program had its start at San Clemente High School. Jeff Davis, then Vice Principal, was its founder. Shortly after the club started, Mission Hospital Trauma Director Dr. Thomas Shaver and his assistant Georgi Mercado helped to get the communities involved, including both school districts, the mayor of Mission Viejo, law enforcement and school representatives as well as students and parents. Twenty-four years later, Georgi, who works with Mission Hospital as its Trauma Injury Prevention Coordinator, still passionately volunteers her own personal time to Safe Rides. She arranges the training classes, coordinates efforts between the student and adult volunteers, and helps recruit students and adults. One of her prized adult “recruited partners” is the San Clemente Sunrise Rotary Club, whose members have personally volunteered for a number of years.
Safe Rides Program teen members take their responsibilities very seriously. Friday and Saturday nights are when the biggest need occurs. The teen members who help out at Safe Rides give up part of their evenings to make sure that other teens get home safely. Additionally, Junior High students can use the service. The only requirement is that they live within the boundaries of the program.
“I have been involved in Safe Rides since freshman year,” says student President Ethan Chong of Mission Viejo. Ethan is currently a senior at Capistrano High School and in his 4th year of membership.
Safe Rides’ goal is to get teens home safely when they, or the people they’re with, shouldn’t be driving. This program has strong support from the community but could use more volunteers, both adult and student.
“Our program provides safe rides home to students who find themselves in unsafe situations. It is completely confidential and student-run: the dispatcher takes the call and writes all of the information down. Then the driver and navigator are sent to pick students up and deliver them to their homes. At least one trained adult is present per shift at the Mission Hospital headquarters, in a secured conference room. The adult is there for general assistance and in case of emergencies. It is a yearly program and in the past two years we have averaged about two to three rides a night,” says Georgi.
What Training is Needed?
All of the high schools in south Orange County participate in Safe Rides. In addition to organizing monthly meetings with the schools’ leaders, Georgi sets up training and test programs to make sure the students and adult supervisors are prepared to help the local teens who need them. The program works because the trained student members run it themselves with minimum adult supervision. Team members must be high school students who have completed a yearly training as well as providing an application with parent signatures submitted to South County Safe Rides leadership prior to working their first shift.
Each Safe Rides team consists of one trained male and one trained female student, from a local high school (a driver and a navigator), as well as a dispatcher who remains in the base office at the hospital to monitor phone calls. An adult advisor, over the age of 25, must be at the base at all times while the Safe Rides phones are open. Although they will not ever go out on a call, the adult advisors must be there in case of an emergency.
Teen drivers must have a valid driver’s license and a clean driving record for at least six months (with no moving violations), valid California auto insurance, and signed parent approval. Drivers use their own cars, which must be in good condition, and must have proper seating with seat belts for transport.
Gas cards and pizza keep both cars and students fueled.
Who Can Be Picked - Up?
Safe Ride teams only pick up high school and junior high school students 18 years or younger, and living within Safe Rides boundaries. Callers will only be driven home, and cannot be left alone if seriously intoxicated. Teams will need to make an assessment when talking to students on the phone before heading out. A friend of a teen may make the call to Safe Rides for another person. A person does not have to be under the influence to be driven home.
There is no charge for this service. The goal is to get the students home safely and confidentially.
San Clemente is just one chapter of the countywide program and Safe Rides is looking for both student and adult volunteers from the area. Students also participate from: Capistrano Valley High School; Tesoro High School; Saint Margaret’s Episcopal School; San Juan Hills High; Santa Margarita Catholic School; Aliso Niguel High; El Toro High; Trabuco Hills High; Dana Hills High; and Mission Viejo High. The non-profit organization trains both students, and the adults who volunteer to be in attendance at the dispatch headquarters, prior to their being allowed to volunteer.
To become a volunteer or to find out more information about the training, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. If you haven’t talked to your teen about safely getting out of this type of situation, please take time to do it now. Don’t wait until tragedy strikes to help.b
Contact if eligible: 800-273-7433.