Summer Youth Free Ride Program
St. Lucie County, Fla.

By midway through 2015, Fort Pierce, Fla., a small city that lies between Orlando and Miami, had experienced five gang-related homicides, one of which involved a two-year-old girl caught in the crossfire of a shootout near a birthday party.

The rapidly growing instances of gang-related violence in the city, the county seat of St. Lucie, has brought the town of 45,000 people to the ranks of most dangerous cities in the nation, according to neighborhood data site

County officials sought to erase that moniker earlier this year by partnering with Community Transit and The Roundtable of St. Lucie County, a nonprofit made up of a coalition of partners seeking to find systematic solutions to the community ills, for the Summer Youth Free Ride program to remove the barrier of paid transportation that interfered with the city’s youth engaging in positive programs.

The collaborative discovered that, although enriching athletic, social and educational after-school programs could mitigate the ongoing gang problems, one obstacle stood in the way of youth participation – transportation. Through the Roundtable’s “Restoring the Village” initiative, about 200 teens were interviewed about programs such as the Boys & Girls Club, the Police Athletic League and Frontline for Kids. The common theme was a lack of resources to pay for the $100- per-semester student fee charged by the county’s school system to bus students to those programs.

The county’s board of commissioners approved Community Transit to provide free rides between June 4 and Aug. 14. to youths under the age of 18 with a valid student ID or county library card. The free trips offered students rides to structured activities at the county library, pools and summer nutrition programs.
The county spent about $7,000 to promote the free ride program, and that investment paid off in dividends for the community. The program charted 3,436 rides through the summer program. The rides would have equaled to a little more than $6,000 in fares. That cost was offset by the sale of old buses.

More than just giving young people a ride, the program got St. Lucie County’s youth active in education and wellness programs. The free youth transit program led to the county library system’s reading challenge participation increasing by 256 percent this summer.

County commissioners, impressed by the partnership’s success, decided to set aside $20,000 from the county’s general funds to extend the free rides program for the entire 2015-2016 school year.

“The Youth Ride Free program is a result of efforts made by several community partners, including the County Commission, County Administration, the transit system and all the other non-profit partners listening to our youth and understanding one of their needs,” says St. Lucie County Community Services Director Beth Ryder.