Springfield resident Sophia Okorn is the first Fairfax County student to be named a national award winner in the American Automobile Association’s Outstanding Safety Patrol of the Year awards. AAA, which sponsors the Safety Patrol program, selects one patrol from each of its 14 regions across the United States to name as a national winner.
"It was really nice," said the former Crestwood Elementary student and rising Key Middle School seventh-grader of the awards banquet that was held in the spring. Her patrol sponsor and the Crestwood patrols’ liaison to the Fairfax County Police Department attended the event with her. "I met the secretary of transportation. That was cool." U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters distributed the awards.
The 14 winners were chosen from about 500,000 safety patrols nationwide.
"It was a bigger deal than we knew it was," said Sophia’s mother, Stacey Chattman. She noted that the banquet was simulcast on the Internet, so that Sophia’s grandparents in the Dominican Republic were able to watch her receive the award.
Sophia began as a rank-and-file patrol in fifth grade, helping students cross the street and making sure students weren’t hiding in the bathrooms when they were supposed to be in class, she said. "That happens all the time — kids are hiding in the bathroom." In the sixth grade, she was selected as one of two patrol captains at the school, overseeing and directing the other patrols.
That fall, a Crestwood student was hit by a car crossing the street just after the patrols had left their posts. Sophia gathered some of the patrols and sent groups to all of the classrooms from Head Start through third grade to give lessons on street-crossing safety. Her own group gave a lesson to Head Start and kindergarten classes, for which they made up a song to the tune of "Bingo."
"It was fun," Sophia said. "It was a good experience for us. A lot of patrols, they realized that that could happen, and that’s why we need patrols."
Her father, Jack, pointed out that she and her fellow captain had also created a board with all of the patrol posts represented on it, so that they could easily rearrange the patrols’ positions. "A lot of patrols would complain about being in an outside post all winter," Sophia said.
The awards were granted based on a nomination written by a patrol sponsor at the school and a 500-word essay written by the nominee. The nomination was to describe the patrol’s leadership qualities, safety skills, school involvement and citizenship. Katie Kalivoda, Sophia’s patrol sponsor and a teacher at the school, wrote in her nomination that Sophia "demonstrates maturity in speaking to her peers, as well as adults in the school," such that, "on meeting days, she can quiet a room of 25 fifth and sixth graders, having them pay close attention to what she is saying in seconds."
She noted that Sophia was representing the school at the People to People Leadership Forum and helped write the nomination that made the school’s last principal a finalist for the county’s Principal of the Year award. She wrote that Sophia also received straight A’s, served as an anchor on the school’s news program and participated in the school’s fundraiser each year. In addition to the patrol-positioning board and street-crossing lessons, Kalivoda also mentioned that Sophia advocated a walkie-talkie relay between the two patrol captains and the main office and "ensures that all students have their shoes tied and their jackets zipped before leaving the school each day."
Sophia’s essay was to demonstrate how being a patrol made her a better leader, to which she answered that she had learned to treat others with respect, use positive encouragement and lead by example. "When kids are running down the hallway, instead of yelling, "Walk," I approach them with respect and they listen," she wrote. For positive encouragement, she not only hands out badges and Patrol of the Month awards but also has hot chocolate waiting for those working outside on cold days. And she noted that she had seen other patrols doing what they had seen her do.
In spite of all she had learned, Sophia said she would be relieved not to be a patrol next year. "It’s a lot of responsibility," she said, noting that patrols had to arrive early every day, and particularly on meeting days.