By Emily Stonehouse
What’s big and yellow and connects our entire community, yet still flies under the radar on a regular basis?
If you guessed school buses, you’re right.
This past week was bus driver appreciation week across the country, and with 56 vehicles in the local fleet, reaching every corner of Haliburton County, what better time to connect with our local bus drivers.
“We’re mediators, referees, baby-sitters, disciplinarians, counsellors, cheerleaders, and safe spaces,” said Nina Clemmens, the head trainer for the bus lines, as we sat down to chat one chilly Thursday afternoon, “and we manage to do all that from our peripherals.”
The bus lines have a cozy office set up on Wallings Road, with bowls of jelly beans on the desks and freshly strewn Halloween decor. The team swapped a series of inside jokes, references, and stories as I was welcomed into the middle of their circle to listen and learn.
Each of the staff – from dispatch to recruitment to marketing to training – also double their responsibilities by driving buses – sometimes regularly, and sometimes as a fill-in.
But the common denominator to each staff working there, is that they are parents. “I got into this because I wanted to spend more time with my kids, wanted to know what they were doing,” said branch manager Alicia Scheffee. “You actually came on a good day!” she laughed, “normally, there’s at least one kid in this office with us.”
The kids are the heart and soul of what they do at the bus company, and through all the challenges they stumble upon, knowing that the local kids are safe, supported, seen, and heard is consistently their number one priority.
And there’s no shortage of local kids. Currently, there are approximately 1800 who take the bus consistently to schools, with many more jumping on occasionally. “Basically our entire school system is bused in,” said Jessica Podmore, who works dispatch, noting that rural communities have opportunities and challenges that differ from those in urban settings. “This is very unique to our region,” she said.
The majority of urban schools split up their routes based on age, grade, and school. This is an option based on the wide pool of drivers available in the city. In Haliburton County, the pool is a little shallower when it comes to drivers. While the company is thrilled to have consistent drivers for each route currently, they noted that there are no back-up options.
This is why they’re actively trying to recruit to build their roster of local drivers. “Our demographic in drivers is shifting,” said Podmore, “but of course, everyone is very well trained.”
Nina Clemmens takes the lead on all bus driver training in the county. She outlined the rigorous yet attainable process of becoming a driver for the bus lines. “It takes about two weeks in total,” she said, “but we redo the training every five years. Then, past the age of 65 it’s every three years, then every year for drivers over the age of 80.”
The training includes a series of in-depth background checks, 12 lessons, both in-class and on the road, a road test, and a specific student bus driving course. The graduate would receive an active “B” licence, and the ability to drive a bus safely on public roads.
While the company is always actively looking for drivers, they noted that their largest demographic of drivers is currently folks who are middle-aged. When asked why, they all had the same answer: childcare.
“There’s no childcare available in the county,” said Clemmens, “so driving a school bus allows you to have the same schedule as your kids. Drive them into school, then pick them up at the end of the day, and get paid for it.” She noted that many parents drive the bus in the morning and afternoon to complement their kids’ schedule, and often pick up a part-time job throughout the day, between bus routes.
“We’re trying to change the narrative around bus drivers,” said Scheffee, “it’s always the negative about drivers and what we do, or what goes wrong, but we want to change that stereotype.”
Scheffee and her team are actively brainstorming ideas for how to get involved in the community, and not only recruit more drivers to their fleet, but showcase everything they are proud of in their jobs.
One of the ways they get out there is by offering the “Paint the Bus” activity at public schools, where kids are eager to mix paints and meet the drivers. Because, Scheffee noted, bus drivers are important people in these kids’ lives.
“For so many kids, the bus is their safe space. They talk to us, they meet other people,” said Scheffee. Podmore echoed her sentiment, making specific reference to the opportunity for kids of all ages to take the same bus. “When my daughter was in Stuart Baker, she got to know people in JDH, and now that she’s in JDH and preparing for high school, she already knows people there too,” she said. “They automatically create this big brother, big sister dynamic on the buses.”
The staff behind the scenes at the Haliburton Bus Company dabble in the world of driving buses as well, and they lit up when we talked about what that means to each of them. “It’s great when the kids recognize us in the stores, after school,” shared Steve Potalivo, who works in training and maintenance, and as an occasional driver when needed, “they get so excited to see us.”
It’s blazingly apparent that the reason each and every staff member at the Haliburton Bus Lines is in this career: it’s truly for the kids.
And even though it’s for the kids, the school year is actually their quiet time. In the summer, they drive all the routes to accommodate camps, weddings, and special events, making their schedules even more unpredictable, but still tying the community together.
They also provide a bus for seniors in Dysart to travel out of the county for appointments, receive medication, or go to the doctor. On Wednesdays, they offer access to the bus for all interested seniors to do their shopping. For access to this resource, contact 705-457-1740.
In an effort to become more involved in the community, the bus lines are actively finding ways of giving back. Their next event is Halloween at Lakeside Church, where they are filling their bus with donated canned goods that will go to the Food Bank after the event, and on Nov. 18 at Minden Canadian Tire, they will be hosting their Toy Stuff a Bus fundraiser to collect toys, clothing, and food for the Food Bank. “We’re always wondering how we can become more involved in the community,” said Scheffee. “So we want to hear from people, we want to hear your ideas, and we want to give back as much as we can.”
As I wound down the interview and laughed with the crew as we snapped photos outside, I realized that this group of people are the heart and soul of the community. They are the reason our kids get to learn every day, the security of knowing our most precious cargo is safe, and the pulse that keeps the momentum of our little village going, in all corners of the county.
If you are interested in getting involved with the Haliburton Bus Lines team, contact 705-457-8882 or email email@example.com.
And the next time you see a big yellow school bus on one of the many winding roads in Haliburton County, be sure to give them a nod of appreciation. We couldn’t do this without them.