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Photograph courtesy Red Cross
Wheel World: Soquel High Red Cross Club members (left to right) Josh Kay, Anthony Gooch, Marissa Altano and Jackson Case-Barnes stand ready to help get drunk teens home, no questions asked.

Off the Streets

Teens of the Santa Cruz Red Cross work to keep other kids from getting behind the wheel after drinking.

By Jessica Lussenhop

The telephone rings at about 10:30pm on Friday in the Santa Cruz County Red Cross office in Live Oak. A small group of adults in one room pause their clucking over the state of the economy and peer through the doorway of another room, where a gaggle of 15-year-olds are doing their homework.

"It's for you," calls volunteer Barbara Smith.

Soquel High School sophomore Emma Spini runs into the room and picks up the phone. "Hello, Safe Rides," she says breathlessly. "What's your name?"

Spini scribbles down "Brendan," his address and the number of people with him, as the three adult volunteers listen intently.

"Have you been drinking?" she asks, and checks the appropriate box. "And we're dropping you off at the Catalyst?"

The adults all shake their heads and motion "No."

"Oh, we can only take you home," says Spini, pausing, then hanging up the phone. "They're going to call right back."

This is just the first of three calls that turn out to be duds on a typical night at the Red Cross's Safe Rides for Teens program. Program creator and youth services manager Katie Radvanyi says that despite attempts to abuse the system, her volunteers man the phones to make sure that someone calling in real crisis can get the aid they need. "If we can help just that one kid and prevent that one situation, then it is all worth it to me," she says. After only five weeks in operation, the service has given 58 youths a safe and anonymous ride home on party-hearty Friday and Saturday nights.

"I'm guessing that first call isn't going to come through," says Spini, settling back in at a table with five other sophomores who also attend Soquel High School, under a white board scrawled with "GABBY DOMINATES IN THE '08" and "I HEART RED CROSS." They're all members of the Red Cross Club and volunteer once a month. Though they have plenty of options to fill their volunteer quota, the kids say they like being directly involved helping others their own age.

"It's important to keep drunk kids off the streets," says Emma Olin. "I mean, it's bad, but it's happening." Although riders are not required to confess their sins, or even give full names, Radvanyi says most of the 24 pickups they've made since starting are marked by the drivers as "alcohol suspected." Radvanyi came on seven months ago as the youth services manager and was looking for ways to diminish underage drinking and driving in Santa Cruz county. She conceptualized the anonymous rides service and read that the Red Cross in Palo Alto had been running a similar program successfully for 23 years. She wrote up a binder of scripts and hypothetical situations--everything from "rider throws up and misses the garbage can" to actual violence--and training local teenagers. Volunteers are even trained to ask a series of yes or no questions if callers seem distressed to determine if police should be summoned.

Though Radvanyi hasn't yet seen a situation where a teen was in real danger, she says there have been calls where she did detect a raised level of urgency. "The ones that always interest me are when you're taking home one girl. Not a group of five teenagers," she says. "Then you know that she really was stranded."

As the clock creeps toward midnight, the call center gets a request it can actually answer--two girls near Capitola Village who need to be taken to Pleasure Point. Adult volunteer Sandi Imperio climbs behind the wheel of the Red Cross Dodge Caravan with her navigator and husband, Lani Imperio, riding shotgun. The caller, it turns out, has given Sandi completely incorrect directions, and it doesn't take long for the van to slow to a crawl up and down random streets as a heavy sprinkling of rain begins. "I can already see one of the downfalls to this," sighs Sandi. "We need a street map."

Lani calls back to the office, and one of the teen volunteers helps navigate the van slowly through Capitola. Finally, two young girls come jogging out from a darkened house toward the van, frosted in the cold rain. "Thanks for picking us up," one says.

They're both 16 years old, a blonde and a brunette, and are not ostensibly up to no good, though they ask anxiously if they have to give their names. They say they were with friends who were driving a tiny pickup truck and were scared to cram in to get a ride home.

"We heard there were a lot of cops out," explains the blonde. "There was some article in the paper my mom showed me."

It gets quiet as the van drives through the dark streets, for the most part empty save the occasional squad car.

Then the brunette whispers, "I can't believe we were sitting out in the rain." She sounds relieved.

Once in Pleasure Point, the girls jump out and run inside with a brisk "thanks."

"I grew up around here," says Sandi as she pulls away. "It's so spread out and the mass transit is dismal. There were many times when I could have needed a ride home."

"There were many times when I needed a ride home, and I drove," chortles Lani. The couple share a hearty laugh.

"Well," says Sandi, "These are different times."

SAFE RIDES operates Fridays and Saturdays from 10pm to 1:30am; 831.464.5484.

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