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What’s yellow and has 30 legs?

Isaac Babcock

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A tiny 30-legged school bus made its way down the sidewalk along Maitland’s Sandspur Road on the morning of Sept. 28. Mother Donna Hardwick led the way toward Lake Sybelia Elementary with about 15 kids in tow, part of a new program that’s aiming to make parents more aware of the option of kids walking to school.

“It’s not just about keeping kids fit,” Hardwick said. “It’s just the right thing to do.”

Creeping slowly down the sidewalk, the third week of Sybelia’s weekly “walking school bus” campaign looked more like a parade than a simple walk to school. Tiny handheld signs intermittently bobbed up and down, held aloft by tinier hands.

Up front, two girls and a boy held a banner stretched the breadth of them. A tiny red-haired girl rushed up to help hold it up, but changed her mind and raised a tiny sign of her own.

A few footsteps behind, two more walked along inside a cardboard cutout shaped like a painted yellow school bus, their heads poking out the windows as they walked synchronously.

In the first week there was a bit more than a handful in this group, co-organizer Missy Mitchell said. Now there are dozens in two “buses” meeting up at the school from a pair of neighborhoods nearby.

“I hope more people participate every week,” Mitchell said. “It’s fun, and the parents don’t even have to go. We can pick their kids up.”

Walking along in the middle of the “bus” in a day-glow green vest, Joy Marcil is thinking a lot further than her own neighborhood.

As the walking school bus’ leader steers this tiny group toward school every Wednesday, she’s already putting in place plans to expand into five counties.

She’s using Sybelia as a test bed. Beyond this, it could get much bigger, she said.

“I thought this would be a great pilot program,” Marcil said.

There are already other walk-to-school programs statewide and nationally, but on Wednesday, Oct. 5, International Walk To School was the biggest of them all. That day Lake Sybelia, along with three other Maitland and Winter Park schools, participated in the event.

That massive program started in Chicago in 1997, the same year that the Safe Routes to School program hit the pavement for the first time. The former keeps drivers aware of kids walking to school and keeps parents aware of the option. The latter pushes for funds to build safer routes for kids to take.

Making the turn from Sandspur Road as they met up with the second group, the bus walkers held aloft signs from both of those programs, making an odd spectacle out of an otherwise normal group walk to school.

For parent Natasha Stone, the program has almost turned into a bit of pro-walking activism. A couple weeks ago, she started by bringing sons Ryon, 7, and Colin, 3, the younger of the two riding along in a wagon filled with walkers’ backpacks. Then she started knocking on neighbors’ doors.

“I always hound my street,” Stone said. “I’m at every door.”

And the numbers have kept rising for Sybelia’s fledgling program. Now the founding parents are looking into bringing more neighborhoods into the mix.

“Hopefully they’re love it so much they’ll just keep going,” Marcil said.

Learn more

Call Joy Marcil at 407-558-1429 for more information about Lake Sybelia Elementary’s walking school bus program. Visit WalktoSchool.org and saferoutesinfo.org for more information about the national programs.