For the past quarter of a century, Philomath Police Officer Mark Koeppe has been talking to incoming kindergartners on topics such as stranger danger, rules of the road and gun safety during the annual weeklong Safety Town activity.
Each spring, he spends time in Philomath Elementary classrooms talking to the kids about bicycle safety, a fun event that culminates with a bike rodeo, complete with trophies, medals and ribbons.
Koeppe also heads up a hunter safety course that a lot of local children have gone through over the years. That’s the first time Eric Niemann really got to know the longtime police officer when he was at the hunter safety course with one of his two sons.
“I saw the patience and the professionalism that he showed — 23 kids running around with firearms,” said Niemann, who today is Philomath’s mayor. “The following Monday of the same weekend, I got to go the first day of Safety Town and witnessed him manage 53 kindergartners. It was then that the lightbulb went on, you know, this guy does a lot for the community.”
Both of Niemann’s sons participated in the elementary school’s bike rodeo and his younger boy went through Safety Town.
“Through the years, he’s been kind of a rock,” Niemann said. “He’s always been there doing those things but he just hadn’t received a lot of recognition for it, so it seemed overdue.”
Koeppe received a big dose of recognition Sept. 29 at the League of Oregon Cities’ 94th annual conference in Bend. Niemann had nominated Koeppe for the Civic Education Award, which ended up going to two people — the other being Dallas Mayor Beth Wytoski.
The award recognizes educators who have promoted local government education in Oregon schools. The League of Oregon Cities’ board of directors have been recognizing individuals with the award since 1998.
Koeppe said he believes it’s important for young children, such as those pre-kindergartners at Safety Town, to have a positive first experience with police officers.
“I think it’s very, very important that young kids get an opportunity to have contact with the police before it’s mom or dad were speeding and getting a ticket, or even worse, at a domestic or something and everybody’s crying and somebody gets hauled off to jail and the cops did it to them,” Koeppe explained.
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Koeppe’s been teaching Safety Town, an educational and social event organized by the Philomath Youth Activities Club, since 1994. The activity is held each August at Clemens Primary school.
“I work with the kids and try to be as friendly as I can and joke around and have a good time with the kids and make them realize we’re regular people and we’re there to help you,” Koeppe said. “I feel blessed to do it ... Safety Town’s a great program.”
Koeppe’s been organizing Safety Town, which involves several other community partners, for so long that some of those pre-kindergartners are now adults.
“Sometimes the parents will go, ‘oh, I remember Safety Town’ and fortunately, they’re young adults,” said Koeppe, who is 56. “But they’re old enough to have kids that are 4 or 5.”
The bike rodeo teaches safety to second through fifth graders.
“We say, hey, school’s going to be getting out and you’re going to have a lot more time, the weather’s getting nice, kids are going to start riding and we’re trying to prevent as many accidents and stuff as we can,” Koeppe said. “We talk about the importance of helmets and what’s legal and what isn’t.”
Several other types of information works its way into the program — such as, should you hop on a bike that’s been sitting around all winter? — and Koeppe hopes that the kids retain at least 50 percent of it.
The fun part comes with the bike rodeo itself. Koeppe sets up different courses that test skills such as slow-speed balance, maneuvering through curves, braking and so on. He also has a slalom course with cones that they bike through for time.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife sponsors the hunter education programs and the Philomath Police Department helps with providing a place where shooting practice can occur.
Years ago, Koeppe was also involved with the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program, which is no longer active in Philomath.