Tag Archives: safety

Ready for Rachel’s Challenge

She was the first to die that day. She will never be the first to be forgotten.

Rachel Scott was just another high school student the day her life was taken by two of her fellow classmates in the Columbine High School massacre of 1999. Using her words from diaries, letters and poems she wrote, her message of love and compassion lives on through an educational school and community program that tours the country.

The assembly we had at school today was so incredible. It was so deeply moving to me, especially because I remember that tragic day so well. A special assembly will be presented to the community in the gymnasium at Raymore-Peculiar High School at 7 p.m. tonight (Dec. 2). If you live in the area and can make it, it will be worth your time.

Called “Rachel’s Challenge,” the assembly asks us to do five things:  Treat others the way you wish to be treated; dream big; seek good influences in life; spread “positive gossip,” good words about others; and, lastly, start a chain reaction. 

I love this message. It is very similar to what I have been saying to my students for the past eight years and to readers of my newspaper opinion columns for the five years prior to that.

After asking my students if they believed they had the ability to save a life, I told them a story,  a story about a young girl. Sad and alone, she walked through crowds of people in a busy city. She came to the river. She continued walking, right into the river. Swept away by the current, her body was finally located several miles downstream.

On shore, a simple note was found, snagged on some brush near where she walked into the river. The note said, “No one said hello.”

Ever since I first heard that story, I was moved by its power. Those four amazingly simple, yet so profound, words….”No one said hello.” If someone would have just done something as simple as greet her and smile, she would not have taken her own life.

I know there are days I feel down. There are times when someone just says “hello” to me and I know I will then be able to make it through the day. Maybe that person was you —  if not for me, maybe for someone else. You might have saved a life already and not even known it. We have more power than we realize.

You may not believe this, but I do know how it feels to be alone in a crowd. I sometimes feel I have spent my entire life that way. I can make people laugh; I know I have that ability. One thing I sometimes struggle with, surprisingly, is making myself happy.

Somehow in conversations over the years, I mention that comedians are actually among the most depressed people of all. I do not know if anyone ever caught on, but I was including myself in that.

If people are laughing, they are too busy to ask you about your life, they are too distracted by the humor to see the truth, they are too misled by your comedic wit to ever think you could be withering. I suffer from serious bouts of depression, it is true. It is not something I normally discuss. It is something with which I simply deal (and most of the time just refuse to acknowledge).

I just deal with it. And all you have to do is say “hello.”

I just want to strive to be as good as Rachel Scott knew we could all be everyday of my life. I know I will not always be able to do it, but I vow to try. I accept Rachel’s Challenge! If you want to know more, check out www.rachelschallenge.org.

Normally, I would not publish my poetry on here, but this is a poem I wrote shortly after another tragic school shooting, this one at a school in California called Santana High School,  and while thinking of the tragedy of Columbine. Here is that poem:


Safe Haven

 By John VanPelt

In Memory of the Students of Santana and Columbine high schools


I crawl to natural science

To study the evolution of man

Blood on the windows, blood on the walls

This wasn’t in Darwin’s plan.


I stroll to history

To explore ancient times

Blood on the windows, blood on the walls

The blood-stained hands of crime.


I saunter to Spanish

To master a foreign tongue

Blood on the windows, blood on the walls

The last dying gasp of the young.


I skim to English

To read great authors of the past

Blood on the windows, blood on the walls

How long will this pain last?


I scurry to biology

To examine the innards of mice

Blood on the windows, blood on the walls

To violence we are desensitized.


I sprint to algebra

To solve complex formulas of math

Blood on the windows, blood on the walls

We move backwards on the wrong path.


I tear home

To escape the safe haven of school

Blood on the windows, blood on the walls

 The lesson of death has become the rule.


We live in such strange times, with such mind-boggling tragedy. Let’s get through it together. Let’s get together.


Everyone, just smile and say “hello.” We will save lives.


***Photo courtesy of Rachel’s Challenge

Chiefs Counted Out Before Season Begins


I am proud to say I am a diehard Kansas City Chiefs fan. They are my team and I will stick with them through anything. Whether they win or lose, there is no other team for which I want to cheer. So I wish people would just stop counting them out when the season has just begun.

Most of the comments directed at the Chiefs by the announcers were negative. It was as if the announcers were already predicting an 0-16 season for the Chiefs in just the first half of Sunday’s season opener against the Baltimore Ravens. It was so annoying.

There was no “constructive” criticism. There was just criticism and, as it turned out, most of it was wrong.

Here are some of the choice statements the announcers made in just the first 16 minutes of play:

  • “The Chiefs can’t deal with this suffocating defense.”— This was said after the Ravens made the Chiefs go three and out on their opening drive, which actually is a common occurrence for any team. While it was an unsuccessful start to the game for the Chiefs, the players appeared to breathing just fine.
  • “The Chiefs cannot do anything on offense.” — This was sort of true at the time it was said, but the first quarter was not even over. We had time to turn it around.
  • “Kansas City has not been able to muster any kind of drive.” — This was said just 50 seconds after the second-bulleted comment above, still in the first quarter. It was true, yet still early in the game.
  • “Brody Croyle is not surrounded by a lot of talent.” — This is when I started to truly get annoyed by the asinine announcers. The players around Croyle clearly are talented or they would not be in the National Football League. An NFL team does not usually shell out millions of dollars to guys who cannot play the game. Yes, the Chiefs might not have a bunch of superstars, but saying the players are not talented is inaccurate.
  • “They need help because they are not about to get it done offensively with that personnel right now.” — Amazingly this was still the FIRST QUARTER of the game. So much for giving them a chance. Just write them off in the first 15 minutes.
  • “If they have any chance in the game, it’s going to have to come on this side of the ball (the defense); they will have to make some plays and keep it close.”— Wow, for real? While the defense did get the Chiefs going with an awesome blocked punt recovered in the endzone and an outstanding interception returned 72 yards to within the 10-yard-line, it was still the FIRST QUARTER when this comment was made. Last I checked, football had four of those.
  • “The way this game is going, that might have been the only way that Kansas City can score.” — This was said just one minute into the second quarter after the Chiefs narrowly missed saddling the Ravens with a safety. We ended up scoring two touchdowns off the arm of Croyle.

I know this will most likely be a rough year for the Chiefs. But if there is one thing I cannot tolerate, it is being counted out before the game (and, in this case, the season) has begun. People who count others out like this tend to underestimate their opponents. Surprises lurk in underestimation.

The Chiefs did lose the season opener to the Ravens by a score of 38-24, but I was on the edge of my seat with just five minutes remaining as the Chiefs tied the game at 24. Despite an admittedly sluggish start, Croyle threw for a respectable 177 yards and the two aforementioned touchdowns.

I just hope some mouths were forced shut by the Chiefs decent performance in the season opener. If not, I will probably just have to get used to muting the game and providing some positive, constructive commentary of my own.

Good luck, Chiefs. Play well. There are many of us who believe. Just push your mute button too, and you will hear us.

Save the Fireworks: Teach Safety

When I think of America, I think of my friends and family. I think of the freedom to cruise down highways, deciding where to turn next as I drive. I think about good times at the Lake of Ozarks. I think about the Royals and the Chiefs, and how they would win if only I could yell a little bit louder.

All of my laughter, all of my love has come from here — from America. Tears well up in my eyes as I think about how much I love my city, my state and my country. I am so lucky to live here.

I am not alone when I say that when I think of America, I also think about the Fourth of July and shooting off fireworks. Sadly, there are many communities throughout the country that have decreed fireworks illegal. While I understand the rationale behind this, I do not agree with the end result. Banning fireworks smacks of banning my patriotism.

While the sale and use of fireworks has been outlawed in many communities in the Kansas City metropolitan area, Riverside is not one of them. Since Gordon Fowlston took over as fire chief there two years ago, he has begun to enforce the ordinances already on the books, but he has not sought the elimination of private firework use.

“Fireworks don’t kill or hurt people,” Fowlston said. “Guns don’t kill or hurt people. Cars don’t kill or hurt people.  There’s always a human being connected.”

Instead, Fowlston has tried to find an alternative — fireworks safety training. This is the first year for the program in Riverside; a program Fowlston calls a “unique thing.” Working in conjunction with the National Council on Fireworks Safety, a fireworks trade group, Fowlston provided training for 100 young people recently, while about 50 children deemed too young sat and listened to the program with their parents. Despite the wet, overcast day, Fowlston thought the inaugural program was a success.

“I think from what I can tell this program is unique,” he said, “in the sense that we are trying to be more proactive than reactive. We are trying to teach people how to avoid the injuries, instead of just treating them.”

It seems to me that so much of what government does, whether city councils, school boards, or police and fire departments, is reactive instead of proactive. It is refreshing to see when a public entity adopts the latter approach, as Fowlston has.

The relationship between Fowlston and fireworks vendors has not been an easy one. Fowlston admits that he got off to a rocky start with the vendors, who have been a big source of revenue for the city over the years, between the $1,500 vendor licensing fee and the sales tax generated.

“When I came on board two years ago, I started enforcing fire codes and fireworks codes that were not being enforced,” Fowlston said. “There’s been a lot of tension, but that is why I tried to team up with them and promote the safety of it, which in turn promotes our vendors.”

In a display of mutual understanding and cooperation, the vendors contributed all of the fireworks used during the fireworks safety training program. This worked out to be a win-win situation for everyone involved.

Fowlston said the banning of fireworks should be a choice that each city makes for itself. He does believe that many cities make a mistake when they try to ban certain commercial fireworks, but not others.

“It’s all or nothing,” Fowlston said. “We do have an ordinance banning bottle rockets. It is an enforcement nightmare.”

While the use of fireworks is allowed in the city in which I live, Lee’s Summit, “each household discharging fireworks within the city limits” is expected to have a permit which can be obtained for free from an authorized vendor or city hall. Fireworks can only be shot off July 2-4.

The city does ban the use of “rockets on a stick,” “Roman candles” and “missiles with fins or rudders for the purpose of achieving aerodynamic flight.” (www.lees-summit.mo.us/content/fire14.cfm) One, I did not know any of these rules and, two, who knew the Fourth of July was so complex.

I imagine all of this is also an “enforcement nightmare,” as Fowlston so aptly stated. I’ve shot off fireworks frequently and did not know I needed a permit. Whoops, I better throw those missiles back and hope any flight they achieve is not quite aerodynamic.   

Out of the 31 cities considered part of the Kansas City metropolitan area, fireworks are legal in only 14 of them, 10 of which are on the Missouri side and four in Kansas. One of the communities counted on the Kansas side, Shawnee, only allows snakes and caps to be sold or used.

In the remaining 17 metropolitan cities, the use and sale of fireworks is banned outright. This includes some of the more populous communities such as Kansas City proper, Grandview, Raytown and Independence on the Missouri side and Overland Park, Olathe, Leawood and Prairie Village in Kansas. (www.kmbc.com/holidays/9432613/detail.html)

Many cities justify their ban on fireworks by using statistics. They back up the laws they have passed with numbers showing how many people are injured and how much property damage is done because of fireworks.

It is laudable to attempt to keep someone from getting hurt or a home from burning down. It is laughable to attempt this by banning fireworks, as people who want to shoot fireworks will either do so despite the law or will simply go to a nearby community to celebrate the holiday where fireworks are legal.

INJURIES — According to the 2007 Fireworks Annual Report prepared by the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, fireworks were involved in an estimated 9,800 injuries treated in emergency rooms, with 6,300 of those occurring between June 22 and July 22. Children under 15 accounted for 42 percent of the injuries, with sparklers being the most likely type of firework to cause harm. Of those taken to emergency rooms for fireworks injuries, 95 percent were simply treated and released. The number one reason listed as the cause of injury was misuse of fireworks. (www.cpsc.gov/LIBRARY/2007fwreport.pdf)

“A lot of the injuries you see are from illegal things such as M-80s,” Fire Chief Fowlston said. “Also, drinking and fireworks don’t mix the same as drinking and driving or drinking and shooting guns don’t mix.

“If you’re going to shoot off fireworks, you should just do it correctly. This won’t prevent injury in every case, but it will most of the time,” he said.

As the use of fireworks has dramatically increased over the years, the percentage of injuries has actually plunged, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association. (http://www.americanpyro.com/press/facts/FireworksRelatedInjuryRates.pdf) In 1977, Americans consumed more than 32 million pounds of fireworks with 8,300 reported injuries, a rate of 38.3 injuries per 100,000 pounds. In 2007, the pounds of fireworks used had skyrocketed to more than 265 million with 9,800 reported injuries. While this was a higher number of injuries, it was only 3.7 injuries per 100,000 pounds of fireworks, a decrease of 34.6 injuries per 100,000 pounds.

FIRES CAUSING PROPERTY DAMAGE — Based on a 2001 report compiled by the United States Fire Administration (www.usfa.dhs.gov/downloads/pdf/tfrs/v1i7-508.pdf), “fireworks fires cause approximately $15 million in property loss, injure 50, and kill 15 annually.” The report states that 57 percent of fireworks fires occur in July, with nearly 20 percent on July 4 itself. The vast majority of the fires are in “open fields or vacant lots,” according to the report.

To some, these numbers might seem mind-boggling. It is easy to see why cities would rush to ban something that clearly is so dangerous. After all, the citizens must be protected from everyone, including themselves.

The numbers seem less weighty when one considers other circumstances that cause injury or property damage. The leading cause of injury to children is playground accidents, with 150,000 five- to 14-year-olds winding up in emergency rooms each year. (http://www.productliabilitylawblog.com/2009/06/playground_accidents_are_leadi.html) In another report written by the United States Fire Administration, lightning causes 17,400 fires each year, resulting in a whopping total of $138 million in property damage. (http://www.usfa.dhs.gov/downloads/pdf/tfrs/v2i6.pdf)

These numbers lend a little less credence to the “fireworks problem.” Anyone can make anything sound big, bad and dangerous with statistics, just like I can make myself look gigantic in a photograph with the Eiffel Tower in the background. It is all about perspective.

I believe Fire Chief Fowlston has hit on the right path. He offers everyone the chance to learn how to be safe while still enjoying the right to shoot off their own fireworks, instead of just punishing those who are trying to show off their patriotism. The fireworks safety training course is a great example of a proactive approach that should be emulated by other communities throughout the area and the country, thus lessening the need for an outright ban on all consumer fireworks.

Communities who ban the private sale and use of fireworks will often point to their public displays as a fun and safe alternative. I enjoy these gigantic displays as much as anyone. Even if it was legal, I could never afford to purchase such awe-inspiring pyrotechnics as these. I love community fireworks displays. But, I also love shooting off $60 worth or so of my own fireworks.

The large, public displays are like professional football games. They are very fun events to watch and at which to cheer. Every once in awhile, however, I like to play the game myself. Is there a chance I will get hurt? Yes, that chance most certainly exists, in football, fireworks and nearly any activity one can name. If I just follow some safety tips and use my head, most likely everything will work out fine.

Edited by Bre Bivens — Thanks again for all of your help! You are incredible!