Today is the last day of school for Pinellas County public school students. When the final bell rings, joyful children will stream out of the schools and burst onto busy streets, or go back to homes where no adult may be present, or scatter to libraries or recreation centers where the staffs may have been downsized to save tax dollars.
In these tough economic times, people do what they must do to survive. In some families, that means cutting out summer camp or canceling expensive child care arrangements, leaving children at home alone while their parents work. Local governments and nonprofits that normally provide summer programs have been forced to cut back on programming and staff.
More than ever, it will take a village to make sure that our children have a safe summer.
Here are some ways Pinellas County residents can help create a safer environment this summer for the area's most precious resource, its children:
• Motorists, be aware that children may appear on the road in front of you at any time, day or night, in neighborhoods and on major thoroughfares. Children are risk takers. They also lack experience at judging the speed and direction of oncoming traffic. Don't expect them to go to intersections to cross the road safely, to wait until all traffic has cleared, or to wear light-colored clothing at night. Keep your eyes open and drive more cautiously when children are out of school.
• Parents, if you can't afford to pay someone to watch your children while you are at work, invest the time and effort to find alternatives to leaving them unsupervised. Call your local parks and recreation department, the school district, churches and public libraries to ask about free programs during the summer. Call on relatives to help. Get together with other parents in your neighborhood to try to work out a system of supervising each other's children on a rotating schedule.
• If you are a teacher who is off during the summer, or a retiree, or you don't have a job outside the home, offer to help struggling parents by keeping an eye on their children or transporting them to their summer programs. Or sign up as a summer volunteer at a library, summer camp or recreation program. Volunteers are desperately needed.
• Don't let a child go hungry. Some children are left in homes where there is no food available during the day. The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides free meals and snacks to children younger than 18 in several area schools during the summer. To find out if your children can take advantage of the summer feeding program, call (727) 547-7155.
• Churches looking for ways to boost their community involvement couldn't do better than to provide daytime activities during the summer. A week of vacation Bible school is great, but more is even better.
• Don't look the other way. If you know that very young children are being left alone, if you see children engaging in dangerous activities, if you notice a child being harassed or threatened in your neighborhood, notify the parents or call the police. Perhaps you would rather not get involved, but how would you feel if something awful happened because of your silence?
In less than three months, our children will be back in school and well-supervised by school staff during the day. Until then, we all need to take a role in keeping them safe.