By Dan Harkins
ORANGE CITY - The earnest-looking group of locals at the Half-Price Books store on Enterprise Road doesn't come here at 6:30 p.m. every Thursday to sip cappuccinos and discuss new books.
This group, called Safe Kids of Volusia, is here to affect community change, and the results are starting to pile up.
Born in the wake of the tragic Feb. 2 death of 16-year-old Brandon Vera, who was struck by a car on the way to school at U.S. 17-92 and Ohio Avenue, the group has kept a regular schedule of meetings to hold local, county and state officials accountable for finding ways to end the accidents.
Its current goal: pressure the Florida Department of Transportation to create a school zone along U.S. 17-92, where the current speed limit is 45 mph near Orange City's three newest schools near Rhode Island Avenue - University High, River Springs Middle and Manatee Cove Elementary.
FDOT has told the group in the past that the school zone wasn't likely but that it would study the issue.
"We don't have time for study after study after study," said Safe Kids president Vikki Reed. "It's not rocket science. If somebody gets hit by a car going 45 mph or probably more, they're not going to live. If they're hit at 25 or maybe 35, though, they probably will live."
This year, Orange City has racked up, by far, the most pedestrian accidents involving students of any other city in the county - about half of the 24 pedestrian accidents involving student injuries reported by the district, including one of two deaths.
"The numbers are mind-boggling," said Candace Lankford, a Volusia County School Board member who attended a recent Safe Kids of Volusia meeting. "They're not the kind of numbers you ever want to have."
At the meeting, Ms. Lankford showed group members three public service announcements produced by University High School students - the three finalists of 21 entries. The short films will be shown during morning announcements as well as on the district's Bright House Networks channel.
Also in attendance was Greg Akin, director of Volusia County Schools' student transportation services, who delivered another piece of the puzzle.
Starting next school year, he said, Scholars Path, that runs by River Springs Middle and Manatee Cove Elementary, will be a one-way road to alleviate traffic congestion and confusion. Also, the bus ramp and parent pickup at the middle school will be swapped to keep as many cars as possible from waiting for students on French Avenue.
Group members seemed heartened by the improvements. Orange City Mayor Tom Laputka, the group's vice president, offered perhaps the best news of the night, however.
He said FDOT is currently leaning toward approving a school zone for U.S. 17-92 around its intersection with Rhode Island Avenue. It's been an improvement that Mr. Laputka and Sheriff Ben Johnson have rallied for since just after Brandon's death.
"What this does is it starts the process," Mayor Laputka said. "If we need another (school zone) or if we need to extend this one, we can. But it's the start that matters."
April Heller, an FDOT spokeswoman, would only confirm that the new school zone was being studied.
"At this point," she said, "we are pretty much researching and looking into the matter. We'll work with the locals in Orange City and also law enforcement to determine what the best course of action would be."
The new developments led many at the meeting to deliver some high-fives.
"One week, they say they're not doing the school zone," said member Sharon Stafford of Deltona, who has grandchildren in the district, "and now we've got it as a possibility. So this proves you just gotta keep striking while it's hot."
In the meantime, local attorney George Travato has helped the group file for 501(c)3 (nonprofit) status to begin fundraising for programs to educate students across the county about traffic safety.
The group hopes to provide orange Safe Kids T-shirts, with the number "0" on the back, to students and drivers all over the county.
"It's like a team number, zero, because the goal is a perfect safety record next year," said Mayor Laputka. "And I think we can get there."
Kim and Don DeGonia started attending Safe Kids meetings right after Brandon was killed. He and their daughter were best friends.
"It's just sad that it's too late for him to see all this," said Ms. DeGonia. "But what a legacy he left."
Her husband said it was sad that Brandon had to die for action to be taken to prevent more accidents and deaths.
"How bad would all this have gotten if he'd have lived?" Mr. DeGonia asked.
To donate money to Safe Kids, go to any PNC Bank branch. A Spring Safety Fling sponsored by the group will take place from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. May 19 at Mill Lake Park in Orange City, just behind Veterans Memorial Park. The free event will feature bounce houses, musical performances, free Safe Kids T-shirts and bike helmets, face painting, prize giveaways, food vendors, fingerprinting and a bike obstacle course.