Sixty-seven students going into kindergarten this August will be a bit more prepared thanks to the Junior Auxiliary of Conway.
For the past 23 years, the nonprofit has partnered with Conway Regional Health System to expose students to varying issues they may encounter as they enter the school system – or other academic settings – like bullying, nutrition choices, law enforcement officers, firefighters, bus safety and more through a three-day event called Safety Town.
“The junior auxiliary is kind of the boots on the ground,” 2019 Safety Town Mayor Courtney Matyja told the Log Cabin Democrat. “We’re the volunteers that come in and help set everything up but also run it as far as teaching the kids and coordinating it throughout the week.”
While this is her first year as event mayor, Matyja said she’s been volunteering for four years.
In that time, she’s seen a lot of change in the kids from day one to the last from becoming more socially aware to meeting new friends and learning how to use their inside voices.
She said some of these kids haven’t been to preschool and might not know how to walk out tasks such as being able to walk in a straight line.
“Things that when they get to kindergarten, they’re going to learn very quickly,” Matyja said. “We try and get them exposed to some of that stuff ahead of time.”
The 2019 program started on Tuesday. Wednesday, the group of preschool-aged students had the opportunity to learn how to cross the street when getting off the bus, why it’s important to remain seated, how to use the bar to climb up and down the bus’s stairs and where the emergency exits were on the vehicle from Lynn Duran, with the Conway School District.
School resource officers with the Conway Police Department were also on hand, arriving in the SRO vehicle – a 2010 Jeep Wrangler detailed with the Wampus Cat, Conway Public School’s mascot – to teach the group about “Stranger Danger.”
Regarding the first responders, Matyja said it’s important to teach the students not to be afraid of them because they’re community helpers, here to help us.
“They’re here, honestly, to help us and make sure that we’re safe,” she said.
Matyja said they also had a guest visit to talk about body awareness and what is and isn’t appropriate.
One aspect to Safety Town that every one of the kids that comes through loves is the mini town they construct year after year, made to look like a smaller Conway, equipped with roads, yellow striping, crosswalks, stop and yield signs and even a cardboard Conway Regional Medical Center and fire station.
Each lane is large enough to fit a child’s tricycle, which is how the students venture through, learning how to brake, how to stop at the correct sign, which side of the road to drive on and how to stop for pedestrians.
The LCD got to witness a few traffic jams as well, which were quickly unraveled by volunteers nearby, teaching the young drivers the proper way to maneuver their vehicles.
While riding in the town is “obviously really fun,” Matyja said, every kid is different. She said each notices different aspects and enjoy various parts of the week.
“They all takeaway something different and they all, to me, what they’re excited about is different, each and every one of them,” she said. “It’s fun to see their faces light up when they see things.”
Through the last four years, that aspect has quickly become her favorite part.
Matyja smiled and said it’s exciting to watch the little participants experience something they hadn’t before or meeting someone new.
She said she was also thankful for those who help provide that memory like the firefighters with the Conway Fire Department who come out and walk the groups through every item on the trucks, opening each and every compartment to show the students what they use and why.
“Those little things [matter],” the 2019 mayor said.
Matyja said she’s seen the impact Safety Town has on its participants firsthand — her son has gone through the summer program.
She said as a parent, it’s about making sure when they’re not beside her, she knows they can take care of themselves.
“In essence, [for them to know] what’s good, what’s bad, what to be concerned about, what not to be concerned about,” Matyja said.
The Safety Town mayor recalled a moment where she witnessed her son playing in the yard with his friends. Matyja said she saw him step up and take the lead with his friends, making sure they were safe when crossing the road, looking both ways and back again, a safety tip he learned from the annual event.
“He remembers […] and he’s teaching his friends around our neighborhood,” she said. “Those little things are going to impact them forever.”
Conway Regional’s John Patton was also in attendance for the Wednesday session.
“From our standpoint, we’re just very thankful for [the junior auxiliary],” he said. “They do an excellent job every year with this.”
Patton also thanked Woodland Heights Baptist Church, where the event was held, for its generosity in hosting the safety program.
“This is just a great thing to do for the community and that’s why Conway Regional is here,” he said.