Philomath Fire and Rescue Capt. Viktor Bovbjerg helped the kids handle a fire hose during a Safety Town visit Wednesday to Station 201. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

While incoming kindergartners had fun pedaling cars around a town set up last week in the Clemens Primary gym, a passing of the baton was occurring in the background involving a now-retired police officer and a rookie who is getting ready to head off to the state academy.

Retired police officer Mark Koeppe worked his final Safety Town. (File photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Mark Koeppe has been involved with Safety Town since 1994, an assignment that earned him a League of Oregon Cities Civic Education Award in 2019. He officially retired from the local police department in December but continues to contribute as a volunteer.

So, Koeppe came back one last time for the Philomath Youth Activities Club’s annual weeklong safety education event to introduce a new officer, Colter Forrest, to the program.

“It’s really, really important that we make contact with the kids in this type of setting instead of when we’re at the house because mom and dad are fighting or they get stopped for speeding and you’re sitting in the back of the car,” Koeppe said about the event. “The more you can interact with kids in a positive manner, the better.”

Forrest said he appreciates the opportunity to be involved in the event and has been soaking up what he can learn from Koeppe.

“Being new here to the department, it’s pretty easy to get my face around and also see the youth that’s coming into the school district,” said Forest, who will be headed to the police academy in Salem next month. “I’ve kind of been sitting back and hovering over his shoulder a little bit and have seen the way that he’s interacting with the kids.”

The midweek trip to the fire station was Safety Town’s big field trip for the kids. There are other public safety-related things they get to see from the inside of a police car to the sheriff’s office patrol boat.

Philomath Police Ofc. Colter Forrest surprises a youngster with a sticker badge during a special graduation event on Friday. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Beyond the 40 or so youngsters running around in their colored T-shirts that serve as a way for them to identify their assigned group, there are also 20 teenagers that have volunteered to help.

“This age is perfect because they’re starting to figure out who they are and where they’re going,” eighth grader Isla Smith, 13, said when asked what she enjoys about volunteering for the event.

Emmylou Cook, a 13-year-old eighth grader, saw Safety Town as a way to volunteer for something she would enjoy and also just to have something to do after the Benton County Fair wrapped up.

“I’m in 4-H and it looks really good on my resumé because it’s community service,” Cook said. “But I also just really like the little kids.”

Ella Hammond is another 13-year-old eighth grader who participates in 4-H. Besides adding the activity to her community service record, she said it’s just an enjoyable experience.

“I like hanging out with them because they’re fun and they all have their own personalities,” Hammond said. “And sometimes I do babysitting and so this is another good experience for me to just get more practice dealing with different personalities.”

Philomath Fire and Rescue’s Jayden Lindberg, a new resident volunteer with the department, leads a demonstration during a Safety Town visit to Station 201. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Smith and Cook went through Safety Town themselves when they were pre-kindergartners.

“I remember sitting in our house singing ‘Wheels on the Bus’ and I remember my leaders being really nice,” Cook said. “It turns out that my orthodontist’s assistant was one of my leaders in Safety Town … it’s a really small world.”

Smith remembers going through the program as well and felt compelled to help out.

“I was with the little blue house,” she said, pointing across the mat in the gym to one of the play structures. “The shirt fit me until I was 10 years old.”

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.