Benches for bus stops; Community rallies
Organizations in Cape Coral are working to ensure school bus stop safety for children now and for years to come.
“Benches For Our Babes,” is an initiative started by Cape Coral residents the day after 8-year-old Layla Aiken died while waiting for her school bus.
The group wanted to make an immediate change to bus stops around the area and have already placed hundreds of benches around the city, not standing idly by waiting for someone else to implement a change of any kind, but taking actions into their own hands.
While Benches For Our Babes is taking care of the now, The Rotary Club of Cape Coral is working with the city on a long-term solution to make school bus stops safer for kids so that the chances of incidents similar to what the district has seen – two stop-related fatalities since January – have a lesser chance of occurring again.
Both fatalities happened on dark roadways with no sidewalks or pedestrian paths.
Lalay was sitting near the roadway with her two brothers, waiting for her bus.
Alana Tamplin, 12, had walked her sister to her bus stop in North Fort Myers on the morning of Jan. 14. She was struck by a vehicle while walking home.
The idea for Benches For Our Babes was created by co-founder Traci DeBusman, who read the outcry from residents wanting to take action for children on social media.
“I saw that a lot of people wanted to do something about the safety and I saw that a couple of people had mentioned benches. So, I just decided to make the group so we could try to get a lot of people under the same group so it wasn’t so confusing. People just started joining and joining,” she said.
DeBusman, along with friend Erin Diaz, reached out to Cape Coral resident Daniel Webb after they saw a video of him putting up a bench at a bus stop near his house.
They linked up with Webb and the idea started to blossom.
Benches For Our Babes is made up of 10 moderators, each of whom play a role in organization. They all discuss and vote on ideas before following through.
The group did not ask for monitory donations, but for new benches or Lowes gift cards to purchase benches, cables and locks.
Lowes has also offered nearly 50 percent discounts on benches, cables and locks for those buying to benefit the group, and are donating more benches to the cause this weekend.
DeBusman said Lowes had to find benches in neighboring counties because of how many have been purchased in Lee in the aftermath of these tragedies.
Last weekend, the group gathered about 60 members of the community to help build benches on Saturday and distribute them on Sunday.
Benches For Our Babes has placed 130 benches in the last two weeks around the city and look to put them in the areas that need them the most – whether that be a stop with inadequate lighting or is near a busy road.
“I was at one point just standing in the middle of that big hangar (where they built the benches) and there was just all these people from the public all around me. Every color. Every age. There were toddlers to a 70-year-old guy there — and all of them are working. It was the coolest thing ever to see a bunch of strangers who don’t have to be there, but they’re just there doing,” DeBusman said. “It’s awesome for the kids to see what’s going on because then they can learn that they can do this kind of stuff for other people they don’t know.”
Nearly all of the 10 moderators of the group have children in the Lee County School System, and are fighting for their safety no matter how big or small of a difference their actions make.
“I think (placing benches) does help because even if they’re sitting on a bench six feet farther away from the street, to me, that’s a huge difference than sitting right on the corner of the street,” said DeBusman.
“I want them to be safe. I don’t want them to go to a bus stop and think they’re going to get hit, too,” said group member Tabatha Hoffner, who knows what it’s like to have to say goodbye to a child much too soon.
“It’s not the fix-all but it’s a dent in the problem,” added Hoffner. “The kids feel safer. They’re happy to be up off the road.”
The groups Facebook page is flooded with positive remarks from parents across the city whose children are pictured happily on a new bench at their bus stop.
Many of the benches have also been painted — some even with games like tic-tac-toe or checkers illustrated on top.
“The community has been so overwhelming. This is like a full time job for us. The community has just been 100 percent behind us,” said group moderator Nicole Fitzpatrick. “You’ll have your negative people that’ll want to shoot it down. But for the most part, we’ve had nothing but ‘Thank you,’ and people posting about their children sitting on their bench and how happy they are. And that takes over anything negative that anybody can say or do.”
The group is also looking into an “Adopt a Stop” idea, where residents near bus stops with benches can be in charge of keeping up with maintenance and storage in summer months.
The group is spreading throughout the county as well, as Benches For Our Babes has extended to Lehigh, North Fort Myers and Pine Island.
Another community build is scheduled for this Saturday at 9 a.m. in North Fort Myers at 2920 Runway Street. It should be an all-day event, said DeBusman.
If you would like to volunteer or donate to Benches For Our Babes, email Benches4BabesNFM@gmail.com
They are thankful to all of the local businesses who have supplied food, water, services and donations throughout their effort.
Rotarian Nick Muhlenbruch walked into The Rotary Club of Cape Coral and insisted the club do something to make bus stops safer.
“We agreed. The entire club endorsed the idea immediately” said Rotarian Elmer Tabor, who has now jumped to the forefront of the club’s efforts to combat the issue.
“We told (Cape Coral Police Department) Chief Newlan we wanted to be part of the solution,” Tabor said.
The club has come up with a pilot program intended to make school bus stops a safer place for children to last decades, complete with a concrete slab, commercial grade benching, lighting and clear identification.
“This is above and beyond just a bench,” Tabor said.
Tabor was included in City Manager John Szerlag’s stakeholders group compiled as a task force to come up with ideas and solutions for the city that hopefully can be adopted county-wide.
The pilot program will include 200 benches for Cape Coral, with Cement Industries donating the concrete slabs for no cost.
“It’s a huge contribution,” said Tabor.
Though the wheels are moving, they are moving slowly — something that Tabor wishes wasn’t the case.
“It’s taking a heck of a lot longer than we’d like,” he said.
Tabor said he is expecting each location to cost $750 — but that he has been reached out to by numerous businesses and groups for monitory donations (none have been taken yet).
Plans are in the works for The Rotary Club and Kiwanis to team up in this effort as well, said Tabor.
“There are lots of organizations and individuals offering help. It can be frustrating that we can’t accept anything yet. There’s just lots of red tape to get through,” he said.
Despite not being able to accept anything at the moment, the gestures of kindness come as no surprise to one of the Cape’s pioneers.
“It’s Cape Coral,” he said of the generosity. “We’re really a large community with hometown spirit.”
The stakeholders group plans to present to City Council on May 20, where the pilot program is set to seek approval.
“It’s going to take the entire community to get it done,” Tabor said. “We’re just the guiding angels. The community pushes it forward.”
The loss of youth such as Alana and Layla is devastating for the families and community, Tabor said, adding that parents across the city need to speak with their children.
“In no way is Rotary or any of the government entities attempting to remove the responsibility from parents educating their children,” he said.
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