Rick Helweg describes himself as “a bit of a finger wagger.”
Helweg is on a mission to make sure it is safe for young people in his hometown of Lincoln, Neb., to walk or bicycle to school. Although Helweg has his talking points down when it comes to the importance of Safe Routes to School, he knows students themselves can provide the most powerful voice.
So he’s empowering them.
The PreventObesity.net Leader oversees the Lincoln Walks to School project for the nonprofit group Teach a Kid to Fish, a district-wide effort in which students create videos, newsletters and other materials to promote safe walking and biking to school. Not only do kids learn more about being active through the program, they also become advocates, encouraging their friends, parents, teachers and others to support safe routes.
“The kids really want to be walking to school. They see it as a fun activity,” says Helweg, research and communications director for Teach a Kid to Fish. “It allows them to spend more time with their friends and with their families, when parents walk their kids to school. Kids really want to be that element of change to spread that information.”
Helweg’s crusade began a few years ago while walking his own sons to school. He noticed that many of the students lived just blocks away, but they usually were driven to campus by their parents, primarily because of safety concerns. Then one morning, Helweg saw someone almost get hit by a car due to the unsafe pedestrian conditions of the streets around the school, and decided to take action.
He began to attend school board and other community meetings to push for infrastructure changes to make the streets safer. At one such meeting Helweg connected with Karla Lester, executive director for Teach a Kid to Fish, who persuaded him to get involved with her organization’s efforts.
Helweg initially applied for an infrastructure grant to install traffic lights at a dangerous intersection. He didn’t get the money, but he did get funding from Safe Routes Nebraska for a related education component. At first, Helwig wasn’t pleased.
“I felt I was between a rock and a hard place” Helweg says. “I almost turned the grant down. I’m a bit of a hothead, and cooler heads prevailed.”
Despite Helweg’s initial disappointment, the education program took off, and Lincoln Walks to School is now offered at nine elementary schools and two middle schools.
Young people are encouraged to take ownership of their work by designing videos and various materials that are offered to other students. For example, newsletters feature student-written articles on various health issues, including the importance of being active by walking to school. Meanwhile, students write scripts and perform in videos, which often function as short films.
“My goal is to get kids spreading the message to kids, and also kids spreading the message to their parents and their teachers,” Helweg says.
Lincoln Walks to School continues to grow. This fall, a pedometer challenge will encourage students to track their steps and find more ways to move. Lester tells the Inside Track that Helweg has been a powerful champion for the program.
“The district-wide grant funding is really unheard of,” she says. “That’s a really big deal that we were able to get that and pull this off.”
Helweg hasn’t given up on infrastructure efforts, and still is aiming to get funding to install crossing signals, sidewalks and stop signs. Meanwhile, kids are spreading the word to grownups about safe routes — and momentum is building.
“It’s amazing how many people have great memories of walking to school, and it’s a great loss, especially for the older generation, to think that these kids won’t have the opportunity to walk to school,” Lester says.
“Everybody has something to say about it,” Helweg adds. “From the memories of them walking to school to the traffic conditions around the school to safety issues, once you get them started, it’s amazing how long it will go on.”
Click here to connect with Rick Helweg. Click here to connect with Karla Lester.