Marietta’s annual Safetytown program teaches youngsters to be safe

Children pedal cars around a miniature community on the Harmar Elementary School playground Tuesday morning, learning traffic rules at Safetytown from student volunteers. (Photo by Michael Kelly)

After more than four decades, thousands of Marietta area children have experienced Samuel R. Cook Safetytown. What can’t be measured is the number of injuries the nine-day summer program has prevented or lives it has saved.

The program has become a Marietta institution, creating its own multigenerational subculture.

“We have grandparents who have told me their kids went to Safetytown and now their grandchildren are attending. Some of them who have grown children that have moved away bring their grandkids back to Marietta in the summer specifically to have them attend,” Cheryl Cook said Tuesday. This year’s class is 155 children, ages five and six, taught by teachers, professional presenters and student volunteers, many of whom are themselves Safetytown alumni.

Cook, who is principal of Harmar Elementary School, where the program is held, and whose late husband Samuel R. Cook started Safetytown 42 years ago, said the program tries to keep up with evolving safety needs of modern children.

“We consider the question of what life is like for a five- or six-year-old child, and what is special to this community,” she said. “There’s water safety with the river nearby, railroads, camping, the beach, bicycling. In recent years we’ve expanded things to include storm safety, even wearing sunscreen.”

In a main floor classroom at the school Tuesday morning, Jennifer Greene pointed at a big, illuminated board with a remote control. The 20 children seated in the room watched intently. “Look at the guy cleaning the swimming pool,” she said, indicating a pictured man with a net and a long pole, the end of which was coming to rest, unknown to him, on a power line. “Where is he looking?”

“He’s gonna get zapped!” a boy in the front row shouted. Greene, the director of marketing and member services for Washington County Electric Co-op, started the countdown: “Three, two, one – zap!” the children shouted, and the unfortunate picture-man lit up with a loud buzz. The lesson: be aware of your surroundings.

Don’t use frayed and damaged extension cords. Don’t plug too many devices into one electrical outlet. Is your toast stuck in the toaster? Get an adult to remove it, don’t use your fingers or a piece of silverware to fish it out.

Lessons in mind, the children, guided by teen volunteers, moved on to the next session.

Greene said it’s her 12th year giving Safetytown children advice on staying safe around electricity. The board she uses is called Hazard Hamlet, she said, specifically made to show people in dangerous situations that kids can easily see. She said she would make the presentation to eight groups Tuesday.

“Electrical safety is a big concern at the co-op, and we’ll take this program anywhere they’ll have us,” she said. “And the kids are always great, they ask some good questions.”

In keeping with the day’s theme of household safety, down the hall OSU extension educators Kathryn Hartline and Trevor Tom offered “Pretty Poison,” a session on dangerous household compounds.

Tom passed a clear plastic container of breath mints around the class, letting each child handle it briefly. “Do you see anything in there?” he asked.

“There was a pill in there,” one boy said.

“It was a lot smaller, and it had a line through it,” a girl said.

Tom confirmed he had put five Tylenol tablets in with the mints. Lesson: Take care about assuming things from packaging.

He held two small tubes side by side and asked the children to identify them. Remarkably similar in shape, one was a glue stick and the other was a chap stick.

Hartline finished the session by leading the group in the “Pretty Poison Pledge” that begins “Keep pretty poisons out of my mouth …”

Outside on the freshly paved playground, children maneuvered pedal cars between buildings in a miniature community embellished with small buildings, marked streets, painted crosswalks, traffic signs and intersection signals, all under the supervision of teen volunteers in blue shirts.

Hannah Reynolds, 16 and a student at Marietta High School, is a Safetytown alumnus who’s been volunteering two weeks of her summers for six years.

“I just like helping out, being around the kids,” she said, adding that she intends to study pediatrics in college.

Ethan Gault, 14 and a Marietta High School incoming freshman, is in his fourth year of volunteering.

“I really enjoy working with the kids, hanging out with them and getting to know them,” he said. “And it’s something to do with my summer.”

Moving between classes, Sawyer Woods, 5, and Bryson Black, 6, both from Marietta, talked for a moment about their experiences.

“Never play with electricity, that’s what I learned today,” Sawyer said.

“Don’t touch poison ivy, anything with three leaves, leave it alone,” Bryson said.

The class of 2019 graduates Thursday night in the auditorium at Marietta High School, another addition to the growing body of Safetytown alumni.

Michael Kelly can be reached at mkelly@mariettatimes.com.