The children's eyes are full of wonder as the school bus pulls up to be greeted by Corp. Creg Bell, a.k.a. "the sheriff" of a pint-sized village called Safety Town.
"Good morning!" Bell says in a booming voice, only to be met with a tepid response from the kindergartners from Schrader Elementary who are busy taking it all in through the bus windows.
"Oh, are we sleepy?" Bell asks. "Now let's try that again."
The third time's the charm for the wee ones who finally bellow back a greeting that's fit to start a day learning everything safety.
"My biggest wish is that we had more time," Bell said, noting that travel and a busy schedule for bus drivers running multiple routes tend to cut into learning time.
Even so, the corporal and his trusty volunteers cover a lot of ground with the hope that what they teach will stick — and maybe even be passed on to younger siblings or parents who might not have gotten around to things such as getting a bike helmet or planning an exit route and outside meeting spot in the event of a house fire.
Among the lessons imparted: how to properly cross the street, how to put on a life vest, how to respond when you come across a hypodermic needle or a gun (Stop! Don't touch! Leave the area. Tell an adult.); calling 911 when someone has been hurt and how to duck and cover on the floor of a miniature house with special effects that produces thunder and lightning and the roaring winds of a whirling tornado.
"Wow, I felt like that was real," Lily Jolly said after weathering the fake storm with her classmates and lining up to move on to the "most dangerous room of the house" to learn about kitchen safety.
Most everything in Safety Town is make-believe — from the miniature house where students learn the importance of mapping out an escape route to the white steepled church used for storage, to the "Home Depot" that houses classrooms and a meeting room. But the lessons are real for the 10,000 youngsters from Pasco and surrounding counties who make the tour annually.
Since 1995 students in grades K-2 have been coming to Safety Town, following a community-based curriculum developed by the Pasco County School District and the Pasco Sheriff's Office with the objective of reducing accidental injuries and deaths of young children.
"This is a rite of passage for kindergarten," Schrader Elementary teacher Tricia Johnson said. She was making her 11th trip to Safety Town. "In all the years I've taught school I can tell you that this has definitely helped so many children."
Safety Town runs on donations and the help of 24 volunteers who act as tour guides, taking students down the sidewalks and through crosswalks complete with traffic lights and stop signs to the various learning stations.
Long-favored activities include a unit on bicycle safety, a 911 calling lesson that prompts a visit from a miniature ambulance that's a real show-stopper with a whirring siren and flashing red lights and a child-size talking and dancing police car.
New this year, and what Bell considers one of the most important lessons, is a unit on gun safety featuring a talk by Bell followed by the NRA's "Eddie Eagle" gun safety video, shown on two 60-inch flat-screen televisions that were donated by New Port Richey Elks Lodge 2284. Coming soon is a new fire safety display courtesy of a newly formed partnership with the Florida Forest Service.
"That's going to be a big surprise," said Bell, noting that Smokey Bear might just be putting in an appearance at the unveiling.
"I love it. I love the interaction. I love the small town and the kids do, too," kindergarten teacher Melissa Pizzo said. "We don't have all this in our (classroom) curriculum, but here it's a one-stop deal. They learn everything they need to know about safety. And it keeps getting better every year."
Michele Miller can be reached at [email protected]