OC’s Play It Safe Program Marks 25th Year

OCEAN CITY — The 25th Anniversary edition of the resort’s Play It Safe program kicks off this weekend, offering safe, supervised alcohol and drug-free alternatives for thousands of high school graduates.

Typically, about 8,000 to 10,000 high school graduates from all over Maryland and beyond participate in the Play it Safe program’s many activities each year through the month of June, representing a significant percentage of the total number of visitors to the resort during the month. The events range from activities like rock climbing, sailing, mini-golf, beach volleyball, bowling and beach karaoke, for example, to organized supervised events like pizza parties and dance parties at night.

The intent of the program is to provide safe, supervised and most importantly fun activities to recent high school grads as alternatives to other behavior involving alcohol and drugs in which they might get involved. For 25 years, the program has provided safe alternatives to thousands of graduates, largely through activities donated or paid for by the private sector and the local business community.

In 1989, then-Governor William Donald Schaefer asked Mayor Roland “Fish” Powell to set up a committee to fight the abuse of alcohol and drugs among young people in the resort community. Thus was born the Ocean City Drug and Alcohol Prevention Committee and the roots for the Play it Safe program. The committee works in concert with the town of Ocean City and its elected officials, the Recreation and Parks Department, the Worcester County Health Department and a myriad of school officials, community service organizations, church groups and many private sector volunteers.

From modest beginnings 25 years ago, the program has become a fixture on the June landscape in the resort with tens of thousands of young people who otherwise might get into trouble taking advantage of the fun, safe and supervised activities. Play it Safe chairperson Donna Greenwood said this week she is often taken aback by how far the program has come over the years.

“Who would have thought 25 years ago when Governor Schaefer asked us to form this committee that it would become what is has today,” she said. “From those early beginnings, we probably never realized what this has evolved into.”

At 25 years old, many of those early attendees now might have high school graduates of their own as kind of a second generation of Play it Safers. Greenwood said the hope is that the fun activities enjoyed by young people will spur memories and encourage them to come back as adults for family vacations.

“Hopefully, they enjoy themselves as young people and return for summer vacations when they are grown and have children of their own,” she said. “The intent is great a fun, safe environment for these kids and send them home safely. When they are adults and have careers and families of their own, we hope they come back to the same places they enjoyed while they were here as recent high school graduates.”

Greenwood said the Play it Safe program had a rather inauspicious beginning. The very first year, it essentially amounted to an eight-page booklet being sent to high school seniors encouraging them to visit Ocean City and enjoy drug and alcohol-free activities the resort had to offer. In that first year, the only officially sanction event was a dance party at Hooper’s in West Ocean City, but it was not a huge success because of the challenges of getting young people across the bridge.

She said the early booklet basically just listed some of the activities the town had to offer, but was missing a key element that helped the program take off.

“We realized early on that the booklet was probably being cast aside because it didn’t offer any coupons,” she said. “The kids were looking for free events because they didn’t have a lot of money. Thanks to the town’s business community, later booklets included coupons for free or deeply discounted things mixed in with the pages that were getting our message out and it really helped.”

Greenwood said the Play it Safe program is largely funded through donations, fundraising and contributions from the business community. There is some state and federal grant money available which essentially just pays for the printing of the booklet each year, but almost all of the events and activities are donated by a generous business community that also stands to gain from a large, safe and happy crowd of young people in June.

“We do get some money from the state and the county health department for the booklet, but just about everything else is donated,” she said. “The economy is not terrific, but the business community comes through for us every year. It’s a challenge, but we’re able to pull it off through the generosity of the community.”

The town as also contributed largely to the program over the years. This year, like most recently, Play it Safe participants will be issued wristbands to ride the bus for free to the various events and activities. However, with the town seeking to raise more revenue from its municipal bus service, that perk could be going away.

“Unfortunately, this will probably be the last year for the wristbands for free bus service,” said Greenwood. “It’s a shame because so many of these kids rely on the bus, but it could be just too cost prohibitive.”