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Striving For Excellence

Shaking hands Daniel Garrett (r) and Bruce Koeber

At age 19 Daniel Garrett has achieved something that many service technicians twice his age or older have not accomplished – he’s been certified as a master school bus technician by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence.

Garrett is a service technician at All-Star Transportation’s terminal in Seymour. He’s one of All-Star’s youngest mechanics, joining the company full-time immediately after graduating from Emmett O’Brien Technical High School in 2016.

To achieve master technician status required Garrett to successfully complete a series of six difficult exams that tested his knowledge of several mechanical systems specific to school buses. Garrett passed his sixth test just prior to Christmas, completing all six tests in less than two years.

“Daniel has been a great addition to our staff,” says Bruce Koerber, Seymour shop manager. “He brings a lot of personality and expertise to the job, and everyone appreciates what he has to offer. Becoming a master technician is a great accomplishment, and we’re all proud of him.”

The master technician course work and tests are done online, which required Garrett to spend his free time studying and learning more about school bus mechanics.

“I studied a little after work,” he says modestly. “I passed my first test in Fall 2016, and then set out to pass at least one new test every season.” The six required tests are Body Systems & Special Equipment, Diesel Engines, Drive Train, Brakes, Suspension & Steering and Electrical/Electronic Systems.

Garrett says he decided to pursue the special certification after speaking with Steve Rosko, All-Star’s director of maintenance, who encouraged him to continue to learn and improve.

“It’s something to do for yourself. It means you are capable when you are certified,” Garrett explains.

Daniel GarrettCapable is a good word for describing Garrett. He was an A student in high school and, during his senior year, one of his teachers recommended him to All-Star. He started working at the Seymour shop part-time during the spring of his senior year, and then joined the staff full time after graduation.

“My main goal after high school was to work with diesels, and I am doing that,” he says proudly.

Next, he says he plans on taking a seventh test that’s included in the school bus master technician curriculum. The test, Air Conditioning Systems & Controls, is not required to gain certification, but Garrett is intent on learning more.

“Then I am taking heavy truck certification, and I’ll just keep on taking more of the tests,” he says with a smile.

Ensuring Safe Propane Buses

Propane bus training

NEWTOWN – In an effort to keep students and drivers safe in Newtown, All-Star Transportation recently held a special training session for local firefighters to educate them about the propane-fueled buses that were rolled out for this year for the first time in Newtown.

Steve Rosko, All-Star’s director of maintenance, led the information and training session for members of the Newtown, Sandy Hook, Dodgintown and Hawleyville fire departments that focused on the mechanical systems of propane buses. All-Star provided the training in an effort to prepare first responders for an accident or other incidents involving a propane school bus.

The town’s Public Works Department provided use of one of its truck bays, which made it possible to offer hands-on training. The bus was raised up, providing easy access for all members of the fire departments to see the fuel system lines, pumps and emergency shut-off valves. Rosko also delivered an in-depth introduction to the engine and fuel systems, as well as discussing the type of fuel used and the fueling procedure that is used.

Propane bus trainingFollowing the training session, members of the fire department expressed their thanks to Rosko and All-Star Transportation.

“Being prepared is always the best action for safety, and now the operation of the new propane fleet in Newtown is safer because of it,” Rosko said.

New And Improved

New Milford terminal

WATERBURY – Things just keep getting better and better at All-Star Transportation.

Twenty-five years after it was put into service, All-Star Transportation’s terminal in New Milford underwent renovations this summer. And in Monroe, the company constructed an entirely new facility on 12.5-acre lot in that town’s industrial park.

“Our goal is to provide our employees with the best possible facilities, and so we have embarked on an ambitious effort to renovate or build new wherever possible,” says John Dufour, All-Star Transportation president. “Our facilities reflect who we are, and that is a high-quality, top-notch school transportation company that is focused on quality and safety.”

The Monroe facility was completed just in time for the start of the new school year and features a new terminal office building and ample parking for the transportation fleet and employee parking.

Monroe terminal
All-Star Transportation’s new terminal in Monroe.
“The employees at the Monroe terminal of All-Star Transportation are ecstatic and are loving their new home,” says Mike Lawlor, manager at the Monroe location. “After years of operating out of the old, drafty and outdated Bus Barn on Purdy Hill Road and then the temporary trailer on Main Street, we have moved into our new building and lot. The newly built facility at 34 Enterprise Drive is modern and very spacious. It contains a kitchen area, conference room and plenty of storage room. Items we have not had the pleasure of in the past. This is a great new base of operations to service the school system for the town of Monroe.”

In New Milford, the building was repainted and new landscaping was planted, giving the exterior a refreshed look. The All-Star sign was repainted and new gutters also were installed.

Inside the New Milford terminal
The New Milford terminal was renovated inside and out.
Inside, even more work was done. New floors and ceiling tiles were installed, and new furniture was added as all office space was upgraded. There’s a new door and window for the dispatch office, making it easier for drivers and the dispatcher to talk. Storage space was improved, and the restrooms were redone. New, efficient lighting was installed, and a fresh coat of paint was applied throughout the interior.

In the shop, a bigger parts room and manager’s offer were created. The changing room and men’s room were also separated to create two individual spaces. And coming soon for the entire facility is a new air conditioning system.

“Everyone likes what was done,” says New Milford Manager Jeff Woods. “It’s a big improvement.”

In previous years, the terminals in Harwinton/Burlington and Washington were renovated to provide new modern work spaces. The new Harwinton/Burlington terminal opened in January 2015, while the renovated Washington terminal opened in the fall of that same year.

Looking to the future, Dufour says, “More renovations are on the way.” The next project, he says, will be a new facility to replace the current one in Prospect, and next year the terminal in Seymour will be renovated.

“We’re growing, changing and constantly improving as we enhance our workplace safety,” Dufour says.

Doing The Right Thing

Bus filled with donated items

WATERBURY – If there’s anything that can be said about school bus driver’s and others at All-Star Transportation, it’s that they care about their community and their co-workers. And they are more than willing to take lend a hand when action is required.

“As a company, we believe it’s important to give back to the communities we serve,” says Leslie Sheldon, All-Star Transportation’s operations manager. “I have no doubt that the charitable efforts of the company and our employees makes all our communities better. Whenever we can, we support our employees in their charitable and community service efforts. We don’t know of any other way of doing business.”

In September, when the extent of the devastation in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria became known, drivers and monitors in Waterbury got busy. They reached out to their local state representative, Geraldo Reyes, and spent a Saturday raising money and collecting goods at two locations in Waterbury. They raised $4,200 in cash and filled two buses donated by All-Star with a variety of goods.

Reyes, a Democrat representing Waterbury’s 75th District, said he was first approached by Mayra Alejandro, a driver/trainer in Waterbury. The Reyes and Alejandro families have known each other for years, Reyes added.

Donated coats
Leslie Sheldon delivers coats donated to the Plymouth food kitchen to Manager Sherry Hoag.
“She said she wanted to continue the efforts started by other people,” Reyes said, explaining that fund-raising efforts had popped up all over the state and a group of Latino state legislators had banded together to raise $100,000 for hurricane relief.

“I don’t know all the drivers and others from All-Star Transportation, but they were outstanding. They really stepped up,” Reyes said. “They worked hard and a lot longer than I thought they would. They worked two shifts at two locations in the morning and afternoon.

To date, $11,000 has been raised in Waterbury, with the bulk of that resulting from the efforts of the All-Star team, Reyes said. The goods that have been collected are stored in a warehouse, waiting for a time when the items can be safely shipped to Puerto Rico.

In another recent case, staff at the Plymouth terminal collected 60 coats to help the Plymouth Community Food Pantry in its annual drive for winter coats for the needy. The staff collected 30 coats and All-Star Transportation matched that total by purchasing 30 new coats that it donated to the coat drive.

“We’re so appreciative. We collected twice as many coats as last year, mainly thanks to you guys,” said Erin Kennedy, director of the food pantry.

“It is a great thing we here at All-Star accomplished,” said Sherry Hoag, an All-Star manager. “Being a bus driver is not only driving that big yellow bus to and from school, it’s also about caring for the precious cargo we transport and reaching out to the families in our communities when there is a need. It is a wonderful feeling.”

Check presentation
Seymour Manager Steve Gardner accepting a check from Leslie Sheldon, operations manager.
Throughout the year, All-Star drivers donate their time to a variety of charitable efforts, and on many of these occasions All-Star also loans one or more buses to provide transportation support. Earlier this year, All-Star went a step farther, donating a new bus to the Waterbury Police Activity League (PAL). The bus has a unique design featuring a colorful collage of photographs taken during PAL activities. The interior is specially equipped with storage racks that make it possible for kids to safely stow their equipment while traveling. The bus also uses propane fuel, making it an environmentally friendly form of transportation.

“When everyone works together, good things happen. When good things happen, the corporate community notices and steps up,” said Waterbury Mayor Neil M. O’Leary, as he praised All-Star’s contribution.

Of course, All-Star employees are always ready to help one of their own when battling a personal illness or coping with an unexpected tragedy. Such was the case in Seymour, where the Alyssa Fitzpatrick, the seven-year-old daughter of Seymour driver, Krystle Fitzpatrick, died suddenly. The entire All-Star family came together to support the Fitzpatrick family, holding hot dog and bake sales, and launching a Gofundme page that collectively raised more than $11,000.

“When we are confronted with real tragedy or real need, we can ignore it or we can react. At All-Star Transportation, our nature is to do something to help, and we do that because it is the right thing to do,” Sheldon says.

Smarter Fuel For Buses

A propane-fueled bus

WATERBURY – Could the propane you use to cook your meals or dry your clothes also be the best fuel for school buses? The answer from All-Star Transportation, and many others, is yes.

All-Star Transportation, which provides service to more than 35,000 students daily during the school year in Fairfield, Litchfield and New Haven counties, is among those forward-thinking companies nationwide that are deploying propane-fueled buses to replace diesel buses. All-Star currently has 136 propane vehicles in its fleet with plans to add more in the future.

“We have had excellent results with our propane buses and that is why we are aggressively adding more to our fleet,” says Leslie Sheldon, operations manager for All-Star and president of the Connecticut School Transportation Association (COSTA).

“There are so many benefits to propane buses. For instance, the maintenance costs for propane buses are lower compared to diesel buses, and that’s no small consideration given today’s tight education budgets,” Sheldon adds.

Propane’s low carbon and low oil contamination also contribute to longer engine life. And compared to vehicles fueled with diesel and gasoline, propane vehicles can produce lower amounts of harmful tailpipe emissions, depending upon the age of the vehicle and other factors. Propane also performs well in cold weather climates like Connecticut because the fuel’s mixture is completely gaseous. This makes it possible for propane vehicles to avoid the cold-start issues associated with diesel and gasoline.

“Propane buses also are much quieter than diesel buses,” says Sheldon, “and that’s a great benefit to drivers. A quieter bus makes it easier for our drivers to hear what’s happening in the back of the bus.”

There are now more than 143,000 propane vehicles on the road in the United States, according to the Propane Education and Research Council. Most are used in fleets, such as shuttles, police vehicles and school buses. The U.S. Department of Energy recently studied the use of propane school bus fleets in Virginia and Texas, concluding that the fleets had no “significant technical or management hurdles associated with the deployment of propane buses, and most of them are exploring ways to expand their use of propane in the future.”

The overwhelming majority of the nation’s 480,000 school buses use diesel fuel, leading some to voice concerns over the negative environmental impact caused by the exhaust from these vehicles. Others argue that low-sulfur diesel fuel and newer engines under development will eventually ease environmental concerns and ensure diesel’s continuing domination of the school bus market.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has become engaged with propane buses through its Clean School Bus USA. It’s a public-private partnership that focuses on reducing children’s exposure to harmful diesel exhaust by limiting school bus idling, implementing pollution reduction technologies, improving route logistics and switching to clean fuels.

Propane buses
Propane buses can be identified by the green bird decal on the top side.
Those who favor propane note that it is less harmful to the environment compared to traditional fossil fuels. Burning propane reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 22 percent compared to gasoline-powered buses and 6 percent compared to diesel, according to the Propane Education & Research Council, an organization funded by the propane industry.

Propane vehicles are similar to their gasoline counterparts with regard to power, acceleration, cruising speed and driving range. A gallon of propane has 27 percent less energy than a gallon of gasoline, according to the Department of Energy. However, propane has a higher octane rating than gasoline (104-112 compared to 87-92 for gasoline), and the Energy Department notes that some manufacturers are developing engines to take advantage of this higher rating, leading to improved performance and fuel economy.

“At All-Star Transportation we are convinced that propane is the best option for the future, and it is our goal to convert our entire fleet to propane in the years ahead to lessen our impact on the environment, reduce fuel costs and make our buses safer,” Sheldon says.

Making Drivers Better And Safer

Brenda Bass

WATERBURY – If you are a driver or a monitor, or hold any other job at All-Star Transportation, then chances are you know Brenda Bass. She’s been with All-Star since its founding 14 years ago and during that time she’s trained most of the company’s drivers and monitors, served as a safety supervisor and performed a host of other critical duties, including an active role in company videos. Her current role is director of training.

“I was the company’s first safety supervisor,” she says, noting that her career in school transportation began 29 years when took a job in Wolcott as a bus driver with her then-four-month-old daughter tagging along.

“I drove in Wolcott for 11 years and during that time became a state-certified trainer,” she says. She began with Dattco and transitioned to Laidlaw after it acquired the Wolcott routes. In 1998, she was named the training center manager for Laidlaw in Bridgeport.

“I did all the classroom and new driver training. It was very busy,” she recalls. “In a summer, I would train 200 new drivers.”

From Bridgeport, she later moved to Laidlaw’s terminal in Torrington, where she was responsible for driver development and safety, investigating accidents and handling worker’s compensation. It was there she also met Richard Dufour, who was then the terminal’s manager, and who would later become one of the founders of All-Star Transportation.

“My office was in the same building as Richard’s. So, really, I was Richard’s safety person,” she says.

Her next assignment was in Hamden, where Laidlaw needed her as a dispatcher. She was there just a brief time before being reassigned to Fairfield, where she served as acting manager. It was while she was in Fairfield that she had her first contact with All-Star.

“Richard called me and asked me if I would be interested leaving Laidlaw. They (John Dufour, Richard Dufour and Leslie Sheldon) were going to start a new company, and they wanted me to be the safety person. I met with Leslie, and I decided it would be a good move for me to join a new company,” she explains. “So, I went back to Torrington, because when we started we were in Torrington.”

The company began with four locations during its first year – Torrington, Harwinton, New Milford and Washington – and then began expanding to its current level of 18 terminals. The company’s growth and success became too much for Bass to handle alone. Four other safety supervisors are now part of the team. Bass, in addition to her duties as director of training, continues to serve as the safety supervisor for Waterbury and Seymour, two of the company’s biggest terminals.

When asked what she considers to be her biggest challenge as the training director, she pauses and then carefully selects her words.

“The biggest challenge is to have drivers live up to the trust that parents put in us,” she says. “That’s someone’s baby on our bus. I try to get people right from the start to understand that. Driving the bus is a big responsibility, especially with all the distracted drivers out there and other road hazards. It’s the safety of the kids that matter.

“I talk a lot about that. How did you feel the first day when you put your baby on a bus and the doors closed and they drove off with your child? It’s a huge amount of trust that people are putting in us, and we have to focus on the job when we’re doing that job.”

Not surprisingly, school bus driver training has become much more involved to meet the public’s expectations. And in doing so, it has placed more demands on those who want to become drivers and those who train them.

Brenda Bass“It’s nothing like it was when I first started,” Bass says. “When I started, it was five days of classroom and behind-the-wheel training all in one. I went down (to the motor vehicles department) and got a public service card, there was no CDL. I went back to the bus yard and told the manager that I got my public service license, and he said, ‘OK, here’s your route sheet, there’s the bus, go drive.’ There was no intense training and no CDL testing. And the requirements to get this job have changed, and all for the good. It’s a big job. It’s a big responsibility.”

As the head of training, Bass says her number one goal is to make everyone a safe driver. She’s now a master trainer, one of just a few in Connecticut, and she’s the chairperson of the safety committee for the Connecticut School Transportation Association (COSTA).

“Most people have no idea what it takes to become a school bus driver. They see women driving buses around town, and they think, ‘How hard can that be?’ And then they get into class and they understand the responsibility that comes with that and the training that is required to get a license. It’s a lot more than some people want to do.”

But for those who persist and complete the training to become a school bus driver, the rewards are many, Bass says, citing her own experience as an example.

“I’m not an unusual case to be around for 29 years. There are a lot of drivers who have been around as long as me. That’s why people say we ‘bleed yellow.’ Once you get in, you don’t ever leave. It’s a really good job.”

A Nod To Safety

Driver Jennifer Rose

SEYMOUR – It may not seem like much, but a head nod could save a life. Just ask Jennifer Rose, or any other school bus driver.

Rose, who drives Bus 27 in Beacon Falls, recently experienced the importance of a head nod while doing her regular run.

As she pulled up to a stop with her amber lights on, a car rushed past her and students standing on the opposite side of the road. One of the student’s parents witnessed the event and called the Seymour terminal, noting that because the children had been taught by Rose to wait for her head nod before crossing the road, a serious accident had been avoided. The parent complimented the driver’s training.

Rose called it a frightening experience, and one that reinforced the importance of safety training that she and all All-Star Transportation drivers receive. As the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA) notes, “The biggest challenge for school bus drivers is getting students on and off the bus safely.”

On average, 33 school-age children die in school bus-related crashes each year, according to the NHTSA. Nearly two thirds of those killed in school bus-related crashes each year are killed outside the bus, and half of all school-age pedestrians killed in school bus-related crashes are 5 to 7 years old. Notably, most fatal, school bus-related crashes occur during the day in clear weather.

All-Star drivers are trained to check traffic in both directions and then use a head nod to let students know when it is safe to approach a bus. It’s the job of each driver to teach their students to wait for a nod and to stand 10 feet back from the edge of the road before approaching a bus. But because kids forget, bus drivers also must constantly remind students how to get off and on a bus safely.

Bus driver Jennifer Rose
Jennifer Rose

Every driver should know the basic rules:

– All students at every stop should be looking for a head nod from the driver before approaching a bus.
– Students should always walk 10 feet in front of the bus, never behind the bus.
– Students should always wait at least 10 feet away from the side of the road before boarding and after disembarking from a bus.
– If a child drops something, he/she should tell the bus driver and never try to pick it up.
– Students should never run to catch the bus.

For those students who must cross the road to get onto a bus, the rules are also very clear:

– They should stay 10 feet from the side of the road, away from traffic, and wait until the bus stops and the driver signals with a head nod to cross.
– When the driver signals that it is safe to cross, students should still check for traffic both ways.
– As students cross in front of the school bus, they should watch and make eye contact with the driver.

If students have to cross the road to get home:

– They should stay on the side of the road the bus let them off on, 10 feet ahead of the bus where they can see the driver’s face.
– When the driver signals that it is safe to cross, students should cross to the outside edge of the bus and check both ways for traffic.
– If it is clear, they should cross quickly.
– If it is not clear, they should return to the side of the road, standing 10 feet back from the edge and wait for the driver’s head nod.

It seems simple, and most safety steps are. What is required is focus and a commitment to doing the right thing.

Responding To The Call

New winter coats Manager Sherry Hoag (left) and Leslie Sheldon with new coats for Plymouth Community Food Pantry.

PLYMOUTH – When the Plymouth Community Food Pantry posted an advertisement seeking “clean, gently-used” winter coats, the staff at All-Star Transportation’s Plymouth terminal jumped into action.

The staff collected 30 coats and All-Star Transportation matched that total by purchasing 30 new coats that it also donated to the coat drive. Leslie Sheldon, All-Star’s operations manager, purchased and delivered the 30 coats to Sherry Hoag, an All-Star manager who brought the coats to the food pantry. Upon receiving the coats, Erin Kennedy, director of the food pantry, thanked the employees and All-Star for their contributions.

“We’re so appreciative,” Kennedy said. “We collected twice as many coats as last year, mainly thanks to you guys.”

The food pantry serves 665 people in the Plymouth area, including 200 children. Not surprisingly, it’s the children who are in the greatest need for coats. Typically, the food pantry works through the schools to collect coats, and now All-Star has become a resource.

“It is a great thing we here at All-Star accomplished. Being a bus driver is not only driving that big yellow bus to and from school, it’s also about caring for the precious cargo we transport and reaching out to the families in our communities when there is a need. It is a wonderful feeling,” Hoag said.

If you are interested in learning more about the food pantry, you can find more information on its website or its Facebook page.

He’s Right In Tune

Scott Friend

OXFORD – Scott Friend is not one to toot his own horn, except when he is performing.

Friend, who drives Bus 12 for All-Star Transportation in Oxford, is one of the top musicians in Connecticut. He’s been inducted into the Bugler’s Hall of Fame, the Drum Corps Hall of Fame, the Connecticut Hurricanes Senior Drum & Bugle Corps Hall of Fame. And the Rhode Island Matadors Senior Drum Corps Hall of Fame.  He also was a teacher and band leader at various public schools in Connecticut before retiring after 34 years.

“I started playing in the fourth grade, when I was nine years old, and I haven’t stopped,” says Friend, who after retiring from teaching joined All-Star in 2015.

In high school, Friend was selected as an All-State musician three times, and in his senior year he also was named an All-Eastern musician. To be selected for the All-State band, musicians must participate in a statewide audition before a panel of judges who evaluate their performance skills.

“It’s quite an honor,” says Friend, who remains connected with the Connecticut all-state program by serving as a chaperone. In that capacity, he watches over students when they gather to practice and perform at the all-state festival.

School Bus Driver Scott Friend

After graduating from high school, Friend joined the Navy and was selected to join the Navy music program. He was sent to the military’s music school in Norfolk, VA, and upon completion of that program, he was assigned to Unit Band 112 in Brooklyn, NY. He was based there for more than two years, and then was reassigned to the Navy band in Newport, RI.

Friend laughs that he joined the Navy to see the world, but was never based at any exotic location. Still, as a musician, he got around, doing 20 or more gigs each month as a member of the jazz band, concert band and brass quintet.

He ended his Navy career in 1975 and shortly after enrolled at the Boston Conservatory of Music. He stayed there for two years before transferring to the University of Connecticut, where his military veteran’s benefits helped make the cost of school more affordable.

“It’s also where I learned to sing, because I was studying to be a music teacher. To teach, you have to be able to sing and play,” he says.

Following the completion of his undergraduate degree, he took a job in 1980 at Bolton High School in Bolton, CT, where he taught band and chorus.

“It was a very challenging job. It was a small school with no band room,” he recalled. “In my first class I only had seven kids.”

Two years later, he took a teaching position at Naugatuck High School, where he remained for 21 years and built a highly successful band program. In fact, the band was selected for a rare honor in 1990 when it was invited to perform at a surprise birthday celebration for playwright Arthur Miller at Lincoln Center in New York City. Five years later, the band went to France to participate in events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. (The anniversary was celebrated with events spread out over a year, from 1994 to 1995.)

Scott Friend performing
Scott Friend performing at a recent event.

In 2002, Friend was recruited to lead the band program at Brookfield High School, where he joined a principal he had worked with at Naugatuck. He began teaching in Brookfield in January 2003 and retired as a full-time teacher in 2014, but continued to work as substitute. He also continued to work as a musician. He’s a member of the Connecticut Alumni Senior Drum and Bugle Corps, and he performs for various Broadway musicals across the state.

But he longed to do more in retirement. Driving a school bus appealed to him because he could continue to have the same work schedule he had grown used to over his career as a teacher and because it was an opportunity to work with kids.

“I like kids. You have to like kids if you are a teacher,” he says. “I saw that Seymour and Prospect (terminals) were advertising for drivers. I went to Seymour for an interview.”

He was hired in late fall 2014, and by early 2015 he was working as a substitute at All-Star Transportation’s terminal in Seymour. He also was loaned to the Oxford terminal as a substitute, driving Bus 12. Soon, he was told, “You’re going to stay in Oxford until we tell you to come back.”

When the school year ended, Friend had the option to drive in Seymour or Oxford, and after thinking about it, he decided to stay in Oxford, which is closer to his home in Southbury and where he had the opportunity to continue driving Bus 12.

“I find elementary kids to be a challenge, as do most others,” he says. “But I try to treat all my kids the way I would like to be treated. I try to engage them with a smile and with a ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye.’ I tell my high school kids that I am a former teacher, and if they ever need a tip to get by in school, to come talk with me.”

Rockin’ Their World

ANSONIA – When Dana Martinez and Annie Fisher scatter rocks they have collected, they are never quite sure where they are going to land. Some stay in the Ansonia area, where they drive school buses for All-Star Transportation, while others end up in places as far away as Florida, Georgia, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

People who find the rocks treasure them because Martinez and Fisher have painted them with colorful images and inspirational words. So, wherever the rocks find a home is fine with the two ladies, because their goal is to spread a little joy. They call their project Valley Rocks CT.

“I saw painted rocks in Stuart, Florida, while visiting my sister,” Martinez said as she explained how her rock art began. On the back of the painted rocks was the inscription, Martin County Rocks. A Florida family started Martin County Rocks, hand painting rocks and tucking them in various locations for people to find.

Two school bus drivers
Dana Martinez (left) and Annie Fisher

In March, following her return from Florida and while coping with her late father’s illness, Martinez decided to launch Valley Rocks CT. For weeks, her husband, sister and brother-in-law painted rocks. Soon, Fisher joined the effort, painting rocks and helping to manage a Facebook page that now has more than 570 members.

“We just wanted to bring smiles to people,” says Martinez, who has been driving for All-Star for 10 years.

Fisher said that when Martinez first told her about the rocks, she thought it was “pretty interesting.” But she wasn’t sold on the idea until “I found one at a grocery store, and it brought a smile to my face.” Now Fisher, who has been driving for All-Star for 13 years, paints inspirational messages on her rocks.

Painted rock“We bring them on charters and to the schools where we drive. It’s fun,” Martinez says. The high school students who ride her bus went wild over them this past spring, taking as many as they could.

She also tells the story of a woman who found one of their rocks that featured a painting of a lighthouse. The woman and her father had visited a lighthouse shortly before his death, and the discovery of the rock “helped her get though a rough day.”

The pair note that rock painting is a fun project for families. They also have hosted “pop-up parties” in local parks, where they invite their Facebook followers to join them for group painting sessions. Martinez also placed some of the painted rocks at the hospice that cared for her father, explaining, “It was nice. Something so simple had an impact on people.”

Both Martinez and Fisher said they didn’t consider themselves to be especially artistic or creative. “We didn’t know we could draw,” says Martinez, adding that no special talent is required and that anyone can create their own hand-painted rocks.

Collection of painted rocksSome creations take a few minutes, while others can take hours. All that’s required is a good paint brush and some acrylic paint, and after a painting is done, a splash of clear coat to seal the final product from the elements. Then comes distribution.

“We don’t hide them. We just leave them for people to find. They can keep it, take it home, move it or replace it,” says Martinez. People can then contact their Facebook page to send photos of what the rocks have found or to post photos of their own creations.

To join the fun, check out Valley Rocks CT on Facebook and send a message.