When 10-year-old Cindy Stevens is home alone she tells strangers who call that her mommy is in the shower; she bakes cookies, and she knows how to dial the emergency numbers for the police and fire departments.
She and 300 other children in Northern Virginia learned these and other tips on staying safe when home alone in classes that th Virginia Cooperative Extension Service offers throughout the year.
The three-year-old Survival Skills Program teaches children ages 7 to 14 what to do when alone at home. Lessons include what to do in an emergency, preparation of simple meals and snacks, how to answer the phone or door and how to handle friends who call.
"Sometimes I'm scared, but usually I'm not because now I know what to do," said Cindy, who is home alone infrequently. She added that she mostly uses the cooking skills she learned -- how to make brownies and cookies.
Although Sherry Stevens has, in the past, been reluctant to leave her daughter alone, she enrolled her in the program because "she's at that age when I can begin to leave her alone when I need to do grocery shopping.
"The program taught her the type of skills she will need throughout her life," her mother added. "It also makes the kids face their fears and realize that they're not the only ones with those fears."
Most of the teaching is done through role-playing, said Debbie Powers, extension agent in Arlington. "For example, we'll teach them how to lie on the phone and say their mom is taking a shower, when really their mom is not home," she said. "And through role-playing, they express fears that they might not otherwise express outright to a volunteer."
During a recent class in Alexandria's Jefferson-Houston Elementary School, Survival Skills Coordinator Veronica Clement used role-playing to teach children how to be polite, yet firm, in telling a phone-caller that the parents are home, but too busy to come to the phone. "If they start asking questions that you don't want to answer, just tell them it's none of their business," she told a group of eight children.
The program is helpful because children do not know how to act in many situations, Powers said. "They may come home and find the door ajar and just walk in," she said. "We teach them to first go to a neighbor's house and alert the neighbor."
Sometimes the rules taught by the program differ from those taught by the parents. For that reason, said Powers, it is important for parents to participate.
"Some parents teach their kids not to respond to someone knocking on the door," she explains. "We teach them to ask who it is because the person on the other side of the door may think the house is empty and try to break in."
Powers added that the program is not just for "latchkey kids," children who are alone after school while parents work. "At some time or another, most kids will be by themselves, even if it's only for an hour while their parents are on an errand."
A class is formed whenever enough persons sign up -- the average size of a class is nine children. But the Extension Service has also offered classes and trained volunteers at the request of specific groups, such as Girl Scout troops and PTAs.
Both the Alexandria and Arlington offices will offer the classes this summer.