Get off the bus and get walking

Welcome to Walking Wednesday in Davidson, a tradition that started last year when a health-conscious elementary school and a pedestrian-friendly town teamed up to get kids walking to school. This year three more Davidson schools will join in – and Mecklenburg health officials are trying to get kids across the county off their bottoms and onto their feet.

“It gets your energy out before you get to school,” Davidson Elementary fifth-grader Emma Montgomery said as she walked the greenway with friends.

In this time of bloated fuel prices, ozone warnings and obese children, Davidson is taking the lead in the quest to make walking safe and trendy. But other Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, including Cotswold, Beverly Woods and Merry Oaks elementaries, also push walking, and foundation and government officials are working to connect a 15-county Charlotte region with greenways and other trails.

Last year town officials and volunteers from Davidson Elementary organized walking routes and bike caravans. This year they've refined the art – and persuaded Charlotte-Mecklenburg's Davidson IB Middle, the private Davidson Day and Children's Community School, a charter, to join.

“Davidson Elementary was our guinea pig last year and they just ran with it,” says Sara-Lynne Levine, communications director for the Town of Davidson.

The program got so popular that parents who lived too far for their kids to walk the whole way to school would drive part way, park and walk their kids from there.

“Instead of creating this healthy environment, we were clogging the roads,” said PTA organizer Eileen O'Flaherty. So now Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' transportation department chips in, dropping students who have permission to walk at trails half a mile from school.

As students got off the bus and hit the greenway Wednesday, two boys tossed a blue football back and forth. A pair of dads on bikes coasted behind one crew. Some of the younger children looked like colorful turtles, with book bags covering their backs from shoulders to knees.

Another refinement: Last year parents escorted each group of students getting off a bus, which required 55 volunteers for each monthly walk day. Now adults are stationed along the routes, which requires only 15 adults and lets the kids feel more independent, O'Flaherty says.

Volunteers sat in folding chairs, dispensing greetings and hugs. Ann and Julius Melton walked down from The Pines retirement complex, the drop-off point for kids to start their half-mile walk, and took stations along the trail. Denise Williamson, whose kids are in high school and college, brought her 4-month-old puppy and soaked up all the energy: “I do it ‘cause I miss this age.”

Each Davidson school has only one Walking Wednesday a month, but the goal is to encourage more walking and less riding year-round. O'Flaherty says her son, Brendan Lynch, started riding his bike with a group on the designated days last year. Now he rides the 11/2 mile route from home on his own.

The Mecklenburg County Health Department has launched a coalition of schools, parents, transportation staff, police and others interested in creating safe ways to walk and bike to schools. Kerry Burch, a staffer who has helped lead that coalition, said one of the most important steps is winning over kids.

“Really, if you get kids excited about it, they're the ones that are going to push their parents.”