When darkness falls on the U of A campus, Safewalk is the school’s eyes and ears — and when you need it, they’re your walk home too. Dressed in their signature bright yellow and black jackets with walkie-talkies to their lips, volunteers from the free accompaniment service offer friendly company and peace of mind for anyone travelling the university campus and surrounding community at night.
Pairs of Safewalk volunteers patrol on and around campus almost every night of the week, walking home clients who may have a late night class, worry about traveling alone in the dark or just want some company. Their purpose, Safewalk Director Evan Worman and Associate Director Christine Patterson explain, is to provide a sense of security through safety in numbers.
“Everything we do is pointed towards the same thing, and that is community safety,” explains Worman. “Not just for students, but for all members of our community — by trying to enhance this area and make it a much safer place for everyone. I feel that were we not to have Safewalk, it would be a detriment to the feelings of safety on campus.”
“I personally feel comfortable on campus,” Patterson adds. “I’d like other people to have that same sense of security.”
Every Safewalk volunteer is required to complete at least one shift per week, and Worman and Patterson are no exception. By the time they step out for the start of their own 8–11 p.m. Thursday shift, the sky is already dark and the sidewalks are lit only by streetlamps. The two longtime volunteers have their first client right off the bat: Danielle Commandeur, who stops by the Safewalk office after her Linguistics night class. She asks to be accompanied as she rides the LRT home, admitting with a laugh that “it can be a bit creepy down there.”
A former volunteer with Safewalk at the University of Calgary, Commandeur knows the drill as Worman and Patterson walk either side of her down the steps to the LRT platform. The conversation between the three flows easily as they discuss their upcoming midterms, before dropping Commandeur off at her door.
On the LRT back to the university, two peace officers board to check transit passes. Walking past Worman and Patterson, they don’t bother to ask for their pass, instead greeting them with a smile and a pat on the shoulder. It’s a reaction that isn’t out of the ordinary for Safewalkers, who have built a strong relationship with local law enforcement since the program’s beginnings in the early ‘90s. While Patterson says they do get checked for their transit passes occasionally, most of the officers already know what they’re up to.
“People see the walkie-talkies and the jackets and they don’t mess with us,” she laughs.
Emerging from the LRT station at the university, Worman gets in contact with the dispatcher back at the Safewalk office using their team colour for the night.
“Purple to dispatch, over.”
“This is dispatch, over.”
“10-1, we’re back at the university. Over.”
“10-4, have a good walk. Over.”
After checking in, the pair have some time to burn before meeting their next scheduled pick up at 9:30 p.m., so they patrol HUB, one of the more high-traffic areas of campus even at night. They find the combined shopping mall and student residence quiet this time, with only a handful of remaining students leaving their night classes.
Walking the length of the building, they reach the corner of the mall where a shooting took the lives of three G4S security officers this summer. It’s a poignant memory for Safewalk, as two of their own volunteers were the first on the scene the night of the tragedy. Worman says the incident has refueled the fire for Safewalkers to help the campus community feel safe, and despite the shock of that night, he hasn’t heard of any concerns from volunteers regarding their own safety.
“(Our volunteers) know that they are here on campus for when things happen and to help out with it. They’ve been very supportive, especially of the two volunteers who were there that night,” says Worman.
After pausing for a moment at the spot of the shooting, they go to meet their 9:30 p.m. appointment, a regularly scheduled walk every week.
“Purple to dispatch, we’ve picked up our walker,” Worman murmurs into the walkie-talkie.
The duo greets Alesha Starchuk, a first-year student who’s booked a Safewalk accompaniment after each of her three night classes since starting at the U of A this September.
After introducing themselves, Patterson and Starchuk realize they share a class together, and the walk to Starchuk’s home is a lively one, full of excited chatter about their class. But for Starchuk, who is new to the area, the friendly accompaniment also means she can breathe easily, knowing a familiar face is willing to make sure she gets home safely.
“(Safewalk) is easy and I feel more at ease when I use it,” she says. “Everyone’s been really nice, and you get to know them and actually make some friends too. It’s like, ‘Hey, I know you and now we’re walking home together.’ ”
On the walk, the group hears someone cry out from a few metres behind them.
“Do you need help?” Worman calls out to the woman, who shakes her head from side to side in response.
While the situation is a false alarm, it’s indicative of the helpful nature of Safewalk: always on the lookout for those in need. With their services known on such a wide level now, Worman says their presence has become a reassuring one for those on campus even if they don’t actually need their help.
“They know that if they’re out and about on campus and they scream, there’s going to be a Safewalker to hear them. They know that we’ll be there,” Worman says. “If they know they’re going to be studying late and need to go down to Clareview, they know that we’re here. That makes people feel safe and comfortable on campus, and that’s what we’re going for.”
The team drops Starchuk off at her home and starts to patrol campus once again, their walkie-talkies crackling with activity occasionally. After a quick walk through Lister, they head past the bus depot and behind HUB. As they walk, a parked peace officer’s car flashes its lights at the two volunteers, who give a wave back in response. The officers pull up beside them.
“How’s your night so far?” Worman and Patterson greet the officers.
“So far, it’s been pretty quiet,” return the two officers, who stay to chat for a minute before driving off to continue their own patrol.
Worman explains that a few of the campus peace officers act as a liaison for Safewalk, a collaboration that has only strengthened their presence over the years. They’ve also managed to foster relationships with some of the officers, who are more than supportive of what Safewalk is trying to accomplish.
With the end of their shift in sight, the two volunteers begin to head back towards the Safewalk office in SUB. On the way, Patterson points out cherry trees near CAB that students can actually eat the fruit off, adding that there’s even a cork tree on campus. Full of random tidbits of information and facts, Patterson claims this is how Safewalkers manage to pass the nights, which can sometimes be long and uneventful.
“Safewalk knows about a lot of cool stuff on campus,” Patterson laughs. “Did you know if you stand on the circle in the middle of the alumni walk and talk at SUB it will echo? Stuff like that. It doesn’t get boring because you find all kinds of random things about campus.”
“We have our own games too, like counting the bunnies,” Worman adds. “It seems a little bit futile, but in the four years I’ve been here, the bunny population has been growing. People come in with bigger numbers every time.”
It’s been a quieter Thursday night shift than usual — Worman says they generally receive upwards of 30 calls on a Thursday night — but despite that, Patterson and Worman deem the shift a quiet success. While they’ve both spent years volunteering for Safewalk, their confidence in what the organization does for the university campus and community hasn’t diminished with time. If anything, the grateful responses they’ve received from satisfied clients has more than reassured them that Safewalk is on the right track, leaving them optimistic that its presence will continue to make the campus a safer place for years to come.
“It’s extremely fulfilling, it really is,” smiles Worman. “The amount of people that you get to walk — and usually when you do walk them, they’ll tell you a bit about why you’re walking them and you’ll say, ‘Well yeah, that is pretty sketchy, I’d have called Safewalk too.’ That’s always fairly heartwarming to hear.”
Safewalk boundaries are from 91 Street (near Campus Saint-Jean) to the East, 72 Avenue and the University farm to the South and to the banks of the North Saskatchewan River to the North and West. They will also ride with a client on the bus to Michener Park and will walk within five blocks of any LRT station.
Safewalk’s hours from Sept. 5–Jan. 9 run 7 p.m.–12:30 a.m. Monday through Friday and 7–11 p.m. on Sundays.
To use Safewalk, call 780-4-WALK-ME (780-492-5563), approach any patrolling team on campus or visit their office in room 030-E on the lower level of the Students’ Union Building and talk to a dispatcher in person.
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