Outside of a family member, the first person many school children encounter each morning is the one that pulls up in the big yellow bus.
Faithful and friendly bus drivers — 113 of them to be exact, give or take a few substitutes — 22 bus monitors and seven mechanics make up the Bulloch County transportation services team that ensures more than 5,300 students are transported safely to and from school every day.
And National School Bus Safety Week, which ended Friday, celebrates the Transportation Department personnel for their part in educating the students of Bulloch County.
"Our roving ambassadors travel more than 6,200 miles each day, servicing 113 bus routes," said Hayley Greene, Bulloch County Schools public relations and marketing specialist. "In a school year, they will provide transportation to more than 1,300 field trips and athletic events and log between 1.1 (million) and 1.3 million miles. They are the first and last face that the majority of our students see each day, so they help set the tone of our learning environment."
Janet Tanner, Bulloch County Schools transportation director, likes to boast about the transportation team members.
"Bulloch County has the best bus drivers," she said. "They all seem to love their children, and safety is their number one priority."
A Bulloch County school bus driver for a whopping 32 years, Nancy Callaway remembers a time that her safety training kicked into overdrive when a tornado touched down on the east side of town. Callaway, who serves on the Brooklet team of drivers, said the sky grew dark with an ominous green color on that afternoon in the early '90s.
"We were on Josh Hagan Road, off Highway 80, and I had about 20 children still on the bus," Callaway said. "The wind blew the bus into the ditch on its side, and the only thing keeping it from falling over was a honeysuckle bush."
Callaway said she quickly offloaded the children from the back of the bus.
"The older ones helped the younger ones," she said proudly about her kids.
At a time before radios in each bus and the advent of cellphones, Callaway and the students trekked to a nearby trailer, asked to borrow the landline to make phone calls and then waited at a nearby covered shelter.
Some students made contact with their parents and were retrieved, and the remaining kids were transported by a school district van to the Brooklet Recreation Department, where police officers handled pick-up.
"I didn't even have my purse," Callaway remembers. "Somebody asked me later, 'Why did you leave your purse on the bus?' and I said, 'I was thinking about those children.'"
Like other drivers, Callaway, who is also the school district's interoffice mail carrier when she's not driving the bus, "thinks" about her students often and says she knows every one of the 120 kids by name.
"I tell them they are riding the Callaway Express, and I thank them for their 'ticket' when they get on. I call them by name and compliment them often. I give them respect, and they respect me in return."
She said that the few she has to correct "don't mind being fussed at — they give me hugs and gifts all the time. It's all about building relationships."
Callaway, who dresses almost every day in school bus-themed outfits that include high-top tennis shoes that look like buses, uses magnets to attach pictures to the top of the bus that her students color for her.
Mattie Harris celebrates 15 years in February of transporting Bulloch County children. Part of the Sallie Zetterower bus driver team, Harris also owns and operates Mattie's Touch of Class hair salon in downtown Statesboro.
When Harris first started her career as a bus driver, she was seeking a way to gain health insurance. She quickly fell in love with the job and the children and said she had no idea she would last this many years.
"But by the grace of God, I have," she said. "I like my kids and love interacting with them. Once you get them and get them used to what the rules are and what you won't put up with, you don't have any trouble then. You know them, and they know you. I respect them, and they respect me."
Harris said she always admires when the older kids help out with the younger ones, as she has all ages from pre-K to high school in the mornings, and then the routes are divided by schools in the afternoons.
Harris said that one challenging year, she picked up four sets of twins on her morning route. It took a bit to learn their names, but she eventually did and prides herself on calling kids by name each morning, and many offer hugs as they board the bus.
Stacey Freeman is starting his third consecutive year as a Nevils bus driver; however, he's driven a Bulloch County school bus off and on for years. Even when he taught industrial arts, constructing and drafting at Statesboro High School, Freeman drove the bus for field trips and to football games.
Bivocational also, Freeman is the owner of Freeman's Mill that supplies grits and flour to the school nutrition program. When he decided to join forces as a full-time driver, he said he remembered that driving the bus previously was the most enjoyable job he had ever had.
"I thought, before I get too old, I want to drive a bus again, because I just love children," Freeman said. "God's given me a love for children. Insurance pushed me into the job, but I just love the children."
Just like Callaway and Harris, Freeman knows his 140 students by name.
"I can tell you about their parents, too. The parents know me and they love talking to me."
Freeman said that at times, the parents will call him with a question or problem.
"One of my riders, I taught his daddy in high school. These are relationships that spread generations, and I'm thankful for that."
Freeman laughed, touched his head and said, "There's some days I want to pull out more of my hair, but I walk away at the end of the day and know the Lord's blessed me to do this. No two days are the same — every day, a different child has a different need."
Freeman said he helps students when they come to him with a problem, and he said he prays for the students often.
"Our Nevils group, we're like a family down there," he said. "And I'm so thankful for the group that I work with, the bus drivers and staff. We're like a family, too."
Freeman remembers a time his safety training benefited him, too. Without prior warning, one of the sandy, unpaved roads he travels was closed by the county, requiring him to back up and attempt to turn around on a washed-out road.
"The only time I ever bogged down in the sand," he said. "One of my kids said, 'Mr. Freeman, I could've done better than that.'
"We have awesome mechanics. As soon as I radioed in, they came immediately with another bus."
Safe drivers, buses
From tornadoes to sandy roads to other issues big and small, bus drivers need to stay on their toes with safety and transportation issues.
According to Greene, drivers participate in rigorous, specialized training on a variety of child care, driving and bus maintenance topics throughout the year. All drivers are trained in basic bus mechanics, how to prepare for bus inspections and how to properly return their buses at the end of the school year.
Drivers bring their buses to the Bulloch County Schools bus garage every 20 days to be inspected and serviced by the team of skilled mechanics. Drivers also perform pre- and post-route inspections daily to look for any possible maintenance issues. All drivers go through mandatory training about proper student management, student privacy and first aid just like teachers.
"Our buses are an extension of the classroom," Greene said.
All drivers are required to annually test their skills on the school district's driving range to keep their skills sharp and to help them handle real-world driving situations, she said. They also annually attend a three-hour, state-mandated safety training session.
At the beginning of each school year, drivers conduct age-appropriate school bus safety courses for all students. They use puppetry, videos and presentations along with outdoor demonstrations with a bus to ensure all children know how to safely board and disembark from a school bus, how to handle emergency situations, and proper conduct.