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From The Inside Track: Meet Deborah Hubsmith

One of the benefits of being a leader on PreventObesity.net is that each Thursday you automatically receive the latest edition of our new email newsletter, The Inside Track. The newsletter will serve as a place where leaders can learn more about one another, through interesting news items, tidbits about current events or profiles of the folks who are making a difference in the childhood obesity movement.

Last week, we profiled leader Deborah Hubsmith, who oversees the Safe Routes to School National Partnership. We've copied the text here for those who didn't receive The Inside Track. If you'd like to apply to be a leader, do so here, and if you already are one, check your inbox every Thursday for the latest edition!   

Crash Course - How one traumatic event led Deb Hubsmith to work to help kids walk and bike to school safely.

It all started with a bang for Deborah Hubsmith.

Like many Americans, Hubsmith lived in the suburbs but worked in the city. Each day she fought traffic to drive to and from her office. Even though she hated it, she didn't really think she had much choice.

Then fate intervened.

During one drive into the city, a car violently smashed into Hubsmith's passenger side. Her vehicle was ultimately totaled. As the crash took place, Hubsmith vowed to herself that if she survived, she'd give up driving for good.

"I walked away without a scratch," Hubsmith recalls. "Then I thought, 'Oh! What did I just promise?'"

It's been about 15 years since the collision, but Hubsmith has kept true to her work. And as it turns out, that crash did more than force her to give up driving -- it shaped the course of the rest of her career.

Hubsmith serves as founding director of the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, helping communities find ways to encourage students to walk or bike to school each day. It helps the environment by keeping cars off the road, and also helps to address childhood obesity by providing kids with much-needed physical activity that they might not get otherwise.

Hubsmith's journey to the safe routes program began shortly after the crash. She quit her job working in San Francisco and landed a job at a school in a semi-rural area in nearby Marin County that had received a grant to make some healthy changes.

Hubsmith quickly discovered that the top issue affecting the students' health was a lack of transportation.

So that's what Hubsmith focused on, coming up with ways to improve walking and biking routes, setting up carpools and working with government officials to bring in viable public transit.

Those efforts were so successful that she began riding her bike to different schools to teach folks about transportation options.

"That kind of became a media sensation locally," she recalls, joking that there was "a lot of publicity about this woman who doesn't have a car and is riding a bike around to public schools."

Eventually, Hubsmith became executive director of the Marin County Bicycle Coalition, where she helped improve roads for local walkers and bikers. But she also remained focused on developing safe routes to school programs.

By 2000, she had met U.S. Representative Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.), who was then the ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Oberstar had heard about her safe routes to school work, and wanted to come up with ways to develop the program on the national level.

Hubsmith submitted a proposal to Oberstar, and a successful pilot program was launched during the 2000-01 school year.

Eventually, funds were included in the $286.5 billion transportation bill passed by Congress in 2005 to start a national safe routes program, and Hubsmith stepped down from the bicycle coalition to coordinate the new initiative by becoming founding director of the Safe Routes to School National Partnership.

"It's very exciting. Right now, more than 10,000 schools are being served with the federal money. But it's still a fairly new program," she says.

"What's most inspiring is getting out and talking to the kids," she adds. "One of the things that they say is that they used to arrive at school tired when they arrived in the car... now they feel energized."

Hubsmith, by the way, bikes to work.

"One of the really fun things about walking and biking is what happens when you're out there," she says. "It really becomes a magical journey."  

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