By Michilea Patterson, The Mercury
POTTSTOWN >> The people on the bus will walk all through the town this week as part of Rupert Elementary School’s walking bus program.
The second year of the program will kick off on Wednesday to celebrate International Walk to School Day. The walking program began as a way to provide students with a healthy and safe way to travel to school.
“The popularity of this program has grown quite a bit,” said David Genova, wellness coordinator for the Pottstown School District.
The “walking bus” works similar to a traditional bus except it has feet instead of wheels. Trained adult volunteers walk children to school using predetermined safe routes. The routes include several “bus stops” where the students wait to join the walking group. Many of the stops are the child’s doorstep.
Genova said more people in the community, including parents, are now aware of what a walking school bus actually is which has allowed the program to grow. This time last year, about 30 kids were signed up to participate but now there are more than 50 children signed up for the healthy form of transportation. The walking bus program runs mornings only five days a week. Genova said an average of 25 kids walked every school day last year but that he would like to see that number increase to 30 this year.
The walking bus was created as a solution to the concerns parents had about their children walking alone to school. The school district has a non-bussing policy. Children that live within 1.5 miles of their school don’t get bussed, which is essentially everyone in the district.
The program is currently only at Rupert Elementary School since it’s the school that has the most students with the furthest distance to travel. This is a result of Edgewood Elementary School closingabout three years ago and now many of the students who would have attended there are assigned to Rupert.
Those students are part of the longest of the three walking routes used in the bus program. The longest route is about 1.5 miles and begins at the intersection of Walnut and Washington Streets. The route takes about 45 minutes to walk one way while the other two shorter routes take about 30 minutes to walk.
Genova, who is also the walking bus coordinator, said one of the goals of the program is to help improve the health and fitness of students. Kids that participated in last year’s program walked a combined 500 miles throughout the school year.
“That’s a significant number,” Genova said.
“Obesity has been an issue especially in low-income areas such as Pottstown,” he said.
Genova said the health benefits of the walking program don’t only apply to the students but also to the adult volunteers as well. He said work schedules and other commitments can make it difficult for adults to find time to exercise. He said being a walking volunteer can be the solution because it will help make people accountable for their health.
“It’s recommended that people get 60 minutes of physical activity every single day,” Genova said.
The majority of the walking school bus volunteers are local business employees or part of area community organizations. Genova said there’s research that shows people who exercise before their work day begins end up being more productive. The business and organizations participating in this year’s walking bus program are the Rotary Club of Pottstown, Pottstown School District Administration, Creative Health Services, Community Health and Dental Care, Family Services of Montgomery County, Christ Episcopal Church, The Mercury and the Pottstown Area Health & Wellness Foundation.
The health foundation will have four employees walk this year including Howard Brown. Brown is the program officer for schools, active learning and community development at the foundation.
“The walking school bus is one of many programs where Pottstown is demonstrating leadership not only regionally but across the nation. The National Center for Safe Routes to School cites that little over 10 percent of children walk or bike to school these days. When I grew up, that was closer to 50 percent,” Brown said.
He said the walking bus helps students to create relationships with their peers and the adults that walk them. Brown said he hopes to see more parents, companies and community members “jumping on the bus.”
“As adults, we are becoming more connected to our community and the daily exercise is great for our health and physical wellbeing,” Brown said.
Genova said the walking program is always looking for more adult volunteers and that they can never have enough. Volunteers can walk weekly, biweekly or even monthly. He has been encouraging business with corporate wellness programs to participate as a healthy option for their employees. Parents and other community members are also invited to participate.
Interested volunteers and parents that would like to sign their children up for the walking school bus can contact David Genova at the email email@example.com or by calling 610-906-6529.
The Mercury is engaged in a long-term effort, Fit for Life, designed to promote healthy living. In addition to articles in the newspaper and on our website, Fit for Life features a blog with recipes, health tips such as getting fit without breaking the bank and other tools all available free online. Visit the website at pottsmercfit4life.com, like us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/MercFit4Life and follow our efforts on Twitter @MercFit4Life.
Michilea Patterson is the Fit for Life reporter and is funded in part by the Pottstown Area Health & Wellness Foundation.