car winner

Brianna Schubert, left, of East Troy High School is congratulated by Henry Tessmer, general manager of Toyota of Brookfield, after she won a free car donated by the Waukesha County car dealership at an April 2018 Operation Click banquet. (Contributed photo/Regional News)

WILLIAMS BAY — Operation Click, a teen driving safety program that gives away free cars to students for safe driving, is regrouping after losing sponsors and longtime participant schools.

Students at Williams Bay and Big Foot High School are continuing their Operation Click efforts.

But three other high schools — Badger, Elkhorn and Darien-Delavan — have stepped away from Operation Click in favor another program called Crossroads.

Delavan-based Kunes Country Auto Group has pulled its sponsorship of Operation Click, along with fellow sponsor AAA.

Dan Nelson a Walworth County sheriff’s deputy who has been involved with the program since it came to Wisconsin in 2011, said the organization’s board of directors has decided to take some time to rethink aspects of the program.

“We knew there could be a better way for the program to be run,” Nelson said.

Meanwhile, the Operation Click program continues in Williams Bay and Big Foot high schools, with students at Williams Bay rewarded for safe driving through monthly drawings for contracts for gift cards at local gas stations.

Teacher Kellie Rowland, who runs the program at Williams Bay, said despite organizational issues with Operation Click, students signed up for the program this school year.

“As we wait for the organization to regroup, we still want to remind students of safe driving habits,” Rowland said.

At the height of the program three years ago, all seven Walworth County high schools participated in Operation Click.

A year ago, the program lost its two major sponsors — AAA, which provided funding for an annual banquet, and Kunes Country Auto Group, which provided used cars for the auto giveaways to winning students.

Jennifer Myers, director of marketing for Kunes, said the company gave Operation Click a heads up that it would be cutting connections with the organization.

The owner of Kunes Country Auto Group set up a family foundation about two years ago to support different charitable causes.

Donations to Operation Click were from marketing, and it was not an effective use of marketing dollars, Myers said.

Nick Jarmusz, director of public affairs for Wisconsin AAA, said the AAA decided to stop supporting Operation Click and to spread its donations elsewhere.

AAA does provides driving simulators and pre-prom information kits to schools to help with student driving instruction, Jarmusz said. He said he hopes Operation Click can continue, too.

“It’s a great program, and we wish them well,” he said.

Started in 1998 in Crystal Lake, Illinois, the program, as the name suggests, was started to remind students to buckle their seat belts. The program’s connection with Kunes brought Operation Click to Walworth County in 2011.

Since then, Operation Click has expanded to all aspects of driving safety, including texting and driving, and driving under the influence.

Participating students sign contracts at the beginning of the school year, pledging to be safe drivers.

According to Nelson, when the program started, surveys of students driving to school showed only 70 percent had buckled up. By the end of the 2018 school year, that number had gone to 98 percent.

In Walworth County, Operation Click culminated each school year with a banquet at Lake Lawn Lodge, Delavan. At the end of the banquet, one student would win a free car from Kunes.

Students who qualified for the giveaway would pull keys from a basket lottery-style. The student with the key that started the car, won the car.

Some schools complained that Operation Click involved too many requirements and that communications was poor with the organization’s board of directors.

At the end of the 2017-18 school year, Walworth Operation Click schools joined with Waukesha and Jefferson county schools for a banquet in Waukesha County. The free car was provided by a Toyota car dealership in Brookfield.

In its place, Badger and other schools have switched to Crossroads, which is run by Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin and is sponsored by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services and State Farm Insurance.

Nelson said Operation Click has been slowed, but it is not going away.

The program will continue this year without the banquet or the car giveaway.

The Wisconsin and Illinois sides of Operation Click have separated, creating two nonprofit organizations, said Nelson, who is now the head of the Wisconsin Operation Click nonprofit.

The goal is to return the program to where it was two years ago, although Nelson said that will require between $5,000 and $10,000 in outside financial support.

He said the separation was implemented because some potential Wisconsin donors balked when they saw Operation Click’s former Illinois mailing address.

He said Wisconsin Operation Click is also reviewing its driving safety program to make it more applicable to Wisconsin roads.

“We had a cookie-cutter program,” he said.

Nelson said he is also reaching out to the schools that have left in the hope that all seven Walworth County high schools will come back to the program.

After the 2016-17 school years, both Kunes and AAA stopped supporting Operation Click.

“They just decided to go elsewhere with their funding,” Nelson said. “It was our hope to get another big-name sponsor. But that never happened.”

Chris Schultz has been a reporter for more than 40 years. He has been with the Lake Geneva Regional since 2010. He covers the Lake Geneva City Council and the Lake Geneva area schools.