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Hele-On bus offers Safe Places program for Hawaiʻi Island youth in distress

hele-on big island bus system
Hele-On Bus
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The Hele-On bus on Hawaiʻi Island is helping kids and young adults get to safe places or help if they're in trouble through a new partnership with the National Safe Place Network.

Hawaiʻi County’s Mass Transit is just the latest transit partner to get involved.

“The youth is in trouble, they go to any one of the Hele-On buses for service, say they need a safe place,” Hawaiʻi County Mass Transit Administrator John Andoh said. “The driver will contact dispatch or dispatch will contact a social service agency, or Office of Prosecuting Attorney — they have a program for runaway youth.”

Help will arrive for children and young adults who voluntarily ask. The program, which trains drivers to also spot youth in distress, shouldn’t create any disruption to other riders, since help will arrive along the bus route.

“They in turn will meet the youth somewhere along the route and connect them to the resources that they need,” Andoh said.

With Hele-On bus fares suspended for the next two years, Andoh hopes that's a greater incentive for those to seek out help.

"I think kids just sort of gravitate to when they're running away to get on the bus and go anywhere," Andoh said.

The nonprofit National Safe Place Network has been around since the '80s, offering youth outreach and prevention. There are more than 22,000 safe places across the country.

“The Safe Place Network model is based on the idea that it takes a village to raise a child, and that the more we can connect our children with the resources in our villages and support our families, the better the outcomes are going to be for young people,” Hawaiʻi Youth Services Network Executive Director Judith Clark said.

Clark said the inception of this program in the state began nearly a decade ago.

“Back in 2013, at the children and youth summit they heard a report about a new report that had come out about disproportionate juvenile contact with the juvenile justice system,” Clark said.

Young people involved said they needed physical places.

“They said we need safe places to go to before we get in trouble with the law for things like running away from home or being truant from school,” Clark recalled.

So Clark introduced state lawmakers to the Safe Places model. She’s an informal advisor to Hele-On’s own program, and sits on the National Safe Places Advisory board.

Clark said this is similar to the state’s own safe places for youth pilot project that passed through the state Legislature this year.

“I took the opportunity to share the national Safe Place model with the members of the Keiki Caucus and the community resource members who participate,” Clark said. “That resulted in the first time that there was a legislative bill to establish the safe places for youth pilot project. And similar bills were introduced every year till about 2019.”

A program like this is important to the state’s continuum of care for children.

“We hope this is the first step in getting the Safe Place program established throughout our state,” Clark said.

To get the word out to kids, the program has connected with nonprofits and added decals to the buses advertising the anonymous service.

Sabrina Bodon is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Contact her at sbodon@hawaiipublicradio.org or 808-792-8252.
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