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In underserved areas, traffic gardens become a safety training tool for children

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Posted at 1:45 PM, Apr 30, 2023

DAYTON, Ky. — On a peaceful playground in Dayton, Kentucky, children do what children do. They chalk up the sidewalk, swing on the bars and when they see a news camera, they try to jump in the shot.

This is innocence. But it’s also where Caitlin Sparks is discussing death.

“Sometimes the only time we get press is when somebody dies,” Sparks said. “For them to pay attention to this issue at all, we had to lose our dear friend and Gloria’s daughter had to lose her mother.”

Last summer, Sparks' friend, Gloria San Miguel, was hit by a car while riding her bike. She was one of the projected 7,200 pedestrians killed in traffic crashes last year, the highest number in nearly four decades.

The issue extends to youth. Pedestrian crashes involving speeding cars and youth more than doubled from 2018 to 2020. Kentucky was among the few states where the numbers went down. But, as Sparks saw, even one can devastate a community and a family.

“I see the two of them together, and I think about, ‘What a great mom Gloria was,'” Sparks said.

Sparks works for a nonprofit called Tri-State Trails. She turned her eyes to Dayton, a small, walkable city growing with young families, riverside trails and business owners.

“There’s a lot of kids I see here, like in the morning hours, walking to their school or in the afternoon,” said Alejandra Flores, who runs a Honduran coffee shop on the city’s main drag.

Soon, one of those kids will be her son, Aldo.

That returns us to the playground and what will be there by year’s end.

“We said, ‘Let’s build a traffic garden,'” Sparks said.

Thanks to a federal grant, one of three given out last year for the purpose of youth pedestrian safety, Tri-State Trails will build a traffic garden in the center of a park where elementary and high school students come for recess.

“We are building like a little mini city," Sparks said. "So we’re going to mimic a lot of what is seen out in the real world, the big world."

Cracks will be covered, murals will be painted and Sparks hopes, a culture will be chiseled into a new generation.

“It’s very clear to me that we need to prioritize human life and quality of life,” Sparks said. “In small and grand ways, I think that this traffic garden is kind of connected to solutions for all of those things.”