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Memorial Garden Honors Unsung Heroes of Hernando County

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We entrust our children’s minds to the dedicated teachers who have such an important role in their education. However, many people don’t realize that we entrust our children’s lives to the unsung heroes of Hernando County, our bus drivers.

Tuesday, Dec. 12, offered an opportunity to recognize these important people in our public school system with the dedication of a memorial garden at the bus depot on California Street. The garden was the brainchild of long-term transportation employee Kathleen Robinson Harrison. She wanted to have a tangible way of honoring the service of both past and present bus drivers, including those who have passed away as well as those still living.

Memorial Garden at the bus depot on California Street. [Credit: Sarah Nachin]
Memorial Garden at the bus depot on California Street. [Credit: Sarah Nachin]

School Superintendent John Stratton, Assistant Superintendent of Business and Operations Ray Pinder, Ralph Leath, Director of Transportation and School Board member Gus Guadagnino joined in the event. Also in attendance were members of the Hernando County Fire Department and many of the bus drivers. The pastor of Family First Church, Tim Coats, a former bus driver, gave the benediction.

Reverend Coats stated, “It’s [driving a bus] a difficult task, and I honor all of you and hold you in high regard. You are very dedicated.”

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Ms. Robinson Harrison commented, “We [bus drivers] are important. Without us, there would be no need for teachers. We bring kids in who could never get to school, and it’s important for everybody to know that it’s not just a job. It’s from the heart.”

Kathleen Kay has been driving a school bus in Hernando County for seventeen years. She does it because she likes to work with children and was previously bored with office work.

Ms. Kay remarked, “Two of the most important traits a bus driver needs to have is patience and strong attention to keep your eyes on the road and watch the children at the same time. You have to be able to multi-task.”

One of the challenges is the children’s behavior. Ms. Kay handles this by rewarding them or moving the unruly children closer to her. Despite the challenges, she finds many rewards in her job, such as the praise and care of the children and the fact that some of them want to give her a hug in the morning.

“I don’t do hugs. I do fist bumps,” Ms. Kay quipped.

Edna Ramos, a mother of three children, has been a bus driver for six years. She came to Hernando County from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Irma in 2017, not speaking any English. She applied for jobs in several areas, and the school transportation department hired her. The training was in English, but Ms. Ramos managed to get through it by taking pictures of the lessons, translating the words into Spanish and studying very hard to grasp the information.

“The most important quality a person should have as a bus driver is to respect the students. Be nice and strong together. I feel like I’m a mom for my students,” Ms. Ramos remarked.

“If I have any issues with the students, I say, ‘I’m really nice, but don’t mess with me,’” she quipped. “And most of my students love me.”

The parents also appreciate her. Ms. Ramos showed me a card she had gotten from one of the parents thanking her. She also understands that a child’s bad attitude or behavior could be related to something that happened at home.

“I always have a smile on my face because my face is the first face they see in the morning and the last face they see in the afternoon.”

Steve Canfield has driven a school bus for four years. He decided to take up this occupation because he was retired and bored being home, and it was a good way to learn about the county. He sees maintaining discipline as the main challenge to being a bus driver. There are rewards, though.

“You get kids that you can see really want to go to school and want to learn. They smile when you greet them,” Canfield commented.

Ms. Robinson Harrison started driving a bus in 1995 while she was living in Lee County, Florida. She moved to Hernando County in 2013 and drove a bus here for two years. Then she retired for two years, but she just couldn’t stay away. So, in 2017, she started working as a bus attendant on the buses that carry children with special needs—a second pair of eyes and ears, as it were.

One important quality a bus driver needs, according to Ms. Robinson Harrison, is “a love for human life−not just children−because we run into a lot of situations that require a person who knows how to defuse. When we’re on the bus, we’re all by ourselves. We have to use psychology and deductive reasoning to defuse a situation. When you open the door to the bus, you don’t know what you’re going to run into.”

Ms. Robinson Harrison stated that one of the most rewarding things about being a bus driver is that she still maintains contact with some of the students who rode her bus, as well as their parents. Occasionally, she runs into people from her route who remember her, even though she might not remember them.

Zulma Rodriguez is another long-time driver with twelve years under her “seat belt.” She got into this line of work because she loves children and, believe it or not, loves driving.

“Another driver told me that I should be stern yet friendly and be consistent,” Ms. Rodriguez remarked.

There is always a shortage of bus drivers, and I believe many parents take these men and women for granted. So when you meet your child at the bus stop or drop them off, smile at the driver and thank them. They are responsible for your children’s safety and well-being for two or more hours a day.

From left to right: Kathleen Robinson Harrison, Zulma Rodriguez. [Credit: Sarah Nachin]
From left to right: Kathleen Robinson Harrison, Zulma Rodriguez. [Credit: Sarah Nachin]
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