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End Of A Long Trip

George Blake

MONROE – What do you do if you grow up with a bus lot in your backyard? Well, if you’re George Blake you build a 55-year career in the school bus and transportation field.

Blake, the long-time dispatcher for All-Star Transportation at its terminal in Monroe, retired from the school bus business on Tuesday. His co-workers sent him off with a retirement luncheon and a few parting gifts, including a special wristwatch.

“I grew up with a bus yard in my back yard. I’ve been pushing buses for 55 years,” Blake said. “I started when I was 10 and got my driver’s license when I was 18.”

Retirement partyHe explained that his father owned and operated a transportation company in Ansonia – Blake Bus Service and Fitzgerald Bus Company. As a 10-year-old, he hopped behind the wheel of a school bus and drove it to a nearby gas station that was selling gasoline for 10 cents a gallon. It was too good a deal to pass up. But as he was going down the road, a police officer pulled him over to ask him what he was doing. When he told the officer he was trying to purchase cheap gas, he was allowed to go on his way.

You name it, and Blake has done it – he’s been a bus driver, bus company owner, dispatcher and more. Over his long career, he’s also put in a lot of miles in Connecticut and beyond.

Retirement watch“I missed the first three days of my senior year in high school because I was bringing buses from Blue Bird back to Connecticut,” he said.

At age 65, he decided to retire because his wife retired in the fall. Blake says he doesn’t have any immediate plans, other than to enjoy his grandchildren and to rest. “My wife is the boss, and she wants to move,” he added, so a relocation to someplace down south may be in the future.

Reflecting on his long career, he said simply, “I’ve done it all.”

A Graceful Exit

Bruce Koerber

If you go looking for Bruce Koerber at All-Star Transportation’s maintenance facility in Seymour, you won’t find him there anymore. After 14 years with All-Star, Koerber retired on Friday – one day after his 66th birthday.

Retirement party“I don’t know what I’m going to do, “ Koerber said during a retirement luncheon held in his honor on Friday. “Relax. I’m going to do some traveling and spend some time with the grandkids.”

He noted that a friend gave him a book listing 5,000 places around the world to visit, but added, “I’m not a big world traveler. I would, however, like to go on a cruise soon.”

Retirement partyPrior to serving as the shop manager in Seymour, Koerber worked for Shaker Lincoln-Mercury for 27 years. As he noted, he started at the bottom and worked his way up from being a mechanic to becoming a manager.

Surrounded by managers from other All-Star terminals and his staff, Koerber reflected on what he’ll miss most about the job during his retirement.

“I’m going to miss the guys and the people,” the lifelong Watertown resident +said. “They have always been great.”

Unity Day In Wolcott

Unity Day T-shirts

WOLCOTT – Unity Day was celebrated in great fashion at All-Star Transportation’s terminal in Wolcott. The drivers in Wolcott designed their own T-shirts that they wore on Unity Day, Wednesday, Oct. 23.

Unity Day T-shirtsOn Unity Day, people across the country were encouraged to wear orange to visibly show that our society believes that no child should ever experience bullying.

Unity Day T-shirtsFor the 2019-2020 school year, the Wolcott staff has adopted “Be Kind, Be Nice” as its motto.  “As school bus drivers we must teach by example, every child has a right to be safe, respected and to feel comfortable in any setting,” says Wolcott Manager Brenda Johnson. “With our positive team motto, we can make a difference!”

A Point Of Pride

Certificate presentation

WARREN – Liz Butler’s 25 years of safe driving were celebrated last night when the Regional School District No. 6 named her October’s “Points of Pride” recipient.

Region 6 Superintendent Christopher Leone presented Butler with a certificate during a Board of Education meeting at the Warren School. Students created poster that was presented at the meeting. The students estimated that Butler has driven 20,000 miles without an incident.

Butler, her son and her daughter are all school bus drivers for All-Star Transportation. And before they began driving, Liz’s father drove her same route in Warren for more than 30 years. The family was featured in an earlier story posted on All-Star’s website.

Torrington Drivers Become State Certified Trainers

New state certified trainers

TORRINGTON – It was a busy summer for All-Star trainers, but for two trainers from Torrington it was double duty. Not only did Szilvia Csenski and Rosa Fernandez train new drivers this summer, they also worked to become State Certified Trainers.

To become  certified, the two veteran drivers first attended and passed a pre-qualify day in June. They were among 20 trainers from throughout Connecticut to participate. During pre-qualifying, they had to perform a pre-trip as if they were teaching new students while a DMV inspector and master certified trainer looked on. Upon completion of that task, they had to board a bus where a master trainer took a set and pretended to be a new trainee. They had to lead the “trainee” through a passenger pick-up, a railroad crossing and road course. During the road course, Csenski and Fernandez had to explain rules of road, and how to safely and defensively drive a school bus. At the end of the day, 11 of the 20 trainers made it through to the next step, which was 40 hours of classroom instruction at DMV offices in Wethersfield.

The first day of the week-long classroom program generated lots of nerves as the trainers were required to deliver a five-minute presentation. The rest of the week then consisted of learning the skills needed to serve as a state certified trainer. And the word didn’t stop when classes ended for the day because each student had to go home and prepare a 20-minute presentation for their final assignment. In the end, the Torrington duo passed and were awarded their state instructor ID cards.

Sharing Safety Knowledge

Propane bus safety

SEYMOUR – Dozens of volunteer firefighters crowded into the service bays at All-Star Transportation’s terminal in Seymour last night to get a first-hand look at a propane-fueled school bus and to learn how to respond in the event of an emergency involving a propane bus.

Checking our propane fueling stationThe gathering of the Seymour firefighters was organized by Steve Rosko, All-Star’s director of maintenance, to ensure the safety of students, drivers and emergency personnel as propane buses are added to the fleet in Seymour. About half of Seymour’s 90 buses are now fueled by propane.

The training session focused on the mechanical systems of propane buses and also included a close-up study of the terminal’s propane fueling system. A new 2020 bus was hoisted on a lift to provide easy access for all members of the fire departments. It allowed them to examine 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.

Close-up of propane-fueled engineAt the conclusion of the hour-long session, firefighters applauded Rosko and those who helped him organize the event.

Making Something Out Of Nothing

Anita Yarrish

NEW MILFORD – What do you do with a shopping bag that’s fallen apart at the seams? Well, if you’re Anita Yarrish, you turn it into an idea that has resulted in hundreds of new, eco-friendly shopping bags.

“I was cleaning out the pantry when an old shopping bag fell to the floor,” she recalled. “The glue had dried out and it fell apart at the seams.”

What she saw on the floor wasn’t something destined for the garbage, but a pattern. All the folds and cuts needed to make another flat-bottomed bag were laying at her feet. So, she broke out her sewing machine and went to work. And as luck would have it, Yarrish had the ideal material for her project – empty bird seed bags.

Bird shopping bag“The (bird seed) bags were so beautiful,” she explains. “So, I would save them to collect empty soda cans.

“I’ve always been a bag person. I always had a plastic shopping bag, clear plastic with a thick handle. I never had a pocketbook,” says Yarrish, who is an All-Star Transportation safety supervisor based in New Milford. She started out as a school bus driver in 2003 and has been with All-Star since 2004.

The seed bags provided the perfect material because they are made of woven polypropylene, giving them strength, and because they feature colorful drawings of birds. In making her shopping bag, Yarrish made the drawings a focal point.  She made her first bag in 2014. It wasn’t perfect, but a new hobby had been born. She ended up making about 50 bags in the first year.

Barley bags“I thought they were beautiful, and I was tickled pink with how they turned out,” she says of her first shopping bags. “My mother took the very first one even though the handles were mismatched and uneven! Then as I made a few more and got better quality, I gave 5 to Diane at Jo Jo’s Deli (in New Milford), and she was my beta tester. She raved over them, so I knew it wasn’t just me.

“I gave them away to friends to use, to strangers in Aldi that didn’t have a bag, to my daughter who shared them with her friends. We used and abused them. I am still using one of my originals. The pretty bird picture has since delaminated from the inner woven material, but, the bag and handles are still secure!”

Now, five years later, Yarrish has made hundreds of shopping bags. This past winter alone, she made 300 bags. Over the years, she’s given more than 100 bags to the New Milford Senior Center, the New Milford social services for their food pantry clients, as well as to friends and co-workers.

Chicken bags“I have even done custom bags for people who send me their specific bags and I sew them and send them back,” she says. “Last fall, I sewed 45 bags- inside of a week, for a business in Manhattan to use for their Christmas party! I have made bags and sent them as far away as Australia and Germany, and many states: Florida, Pennsylvania, California and Arizona seem to really like my bags.”

She also has broadened the types of bags she collects for her creations. She not only uses bird bags, but also collects barley bags from a local brewery, feed bags from neighboring farms and other bags from other locations that otherwise might have ended up in a landfill. Their common trait is that they all feature unique designs. Currently, she has rows and rows of bags hanging in her storage shed.

Yarrish makes her bags in her living room, primarily during the winter months. “Who wants to sit inside and sew all summer?” she asks. She’s also on her third sewing machine, the first two dying from the strain of the work. The latest machine is more commercial, making it better suited for sewing the tough material. She also doesn’t use a ruler to measure, instead she uses her hand to ensure the proper width for the flat bottoms of the bags.

“How ingenious is that,” she says with a laugh.

Room full of bagsDuring the winter, her living room fills with the bags she has created. Her daughter, Rebecca, who is an artist, sells some of the bags on her Etsy site. They typically sell out in a matter of days. Yarrish provides bags to some other local outlets, but she has no plans to expand her hobby and go into the business of selling shopping bags full time.

“I don’t want to make a living out of it. I have a job,” she says. “This is a winter project, just to sit at the table and sew. I love it.”

Givens Wins 2019 Leeds Scholarship

Rachel Givens Rachel Givens

WOLCOTT – Rachel Givens, a 2016 graduate of Wolcott High School, has received a 2019 Leslie R. Leeds Memorial Scholarship, one of just three scholarships awarded annually by the Connecticut School Transportation Association. It is the second time Givens has won the scholarship, last receiving a Leeds scholarship in 2017.

Givens will use the $1,000 scholarship to help finance her education at the University of Connecticut’s Waterbury branch where she is majoring in Human Development and Family Sciences. Givens is the daughter of Danielle and Roy Givens of Wolcott. Roy is a school bus driver in Wolcott for Waterbury-based All-Star Transportation.

COSTA, the organization representing Connecticut school bus companies, established the scholarship program 20 years ago in memory of Leslie R. Leeds, who died in 1996 at age 23. Leeds was a Burlington native and the valedictorian of the Class of 1991 at Lewis S. Mills High School. Her mother, Robin, served as the executive director of COSTA from 1982-2004.

The scholarship program is open to COSTA member employees and their dependents. Applicants must be enrolled in or accepted by an accredited institution of higher education, and applicants must have a GPA of 3.0 or higher. Along with the completed application, high school or college transcripts, essay and two letters of recommendation are required.

All In The Family

The Butler family

WASHINGTON – Under the rule of three, a trio of characters is said to be more effective than any other number. The rule typically applies to writing – three words, three sentences, three paragraphs, for example. But you also could apply it to the Butler family, which has three members who are school bus drivers for All-Star Transportation.

Liz Butler began driving school buses in 1976, while her son Reece started driving almost four years ago, and her daughter Ayla got behind the wheel in March. All share the same house in Warren, and each morning they scatter to their different terminals – Liz in Warren, Reece in Kent and Ayla in Washington.

Liz started driving right after she graduated from high school, when state laws allowed 18-year-olds to drive a school bus. A friend helped her get a job driving for the Dufour family in Cornwall. She did that for five years and also pursued a degree in accounting at the University of Connecticut branch in Torrington. She then worked briefly as an accountant until 1983, when she got her license to drive tractor-trailers and began transporting show horses cross country.  Next, it was five years working at Kimberly-Clark in New Milford, where she met her husband and had two kids before returning to school bus driving.

Her return began when she applied in New Milford with Richard Dufour and then trained in August 1996 in Washington with Tammy Gunning. Once licensed, she started driving in Warren, and Ayla, then not quite a year old, rode along with her. “All the kids wanted to sit with Ayla on the bus, so I kept a list so that they didn’t fight,” Liz recalls.

Her route in Warren is the same route her father drove for 32 years. “Driving runs in our family,” Liz says, recalling that she started driving a truck on the family farm when she was in first grade. “I just love driving,” she says, estimating that she has driven more than 1.5 million miles and is well on her way to 2 million miles.

Ayla, on the other hand, is just beginning to log her miles at age 23. She was working at an aerospace factory when she decided she needed a career change.

“I wanted to be outside and moving, rather than standing still inside,” she explains. “I always spent time with my mother driving around on a school bus when I was younger. So, I decided why not become a driver. I like that I’m always moving around, and the kids are fun.”

Reece, meanwhile, began driving three years ago. He wasn’t happy with the work he was doing in retail before joining All-Star, Liz said. “I talked him into doing this, and he’s getting good experience.”

While her children are relatively new to All-Star, Liz is one of the company’s more senior drivers. Only four others have been with the company longer. She’s not planning to stop driving, and neither is Ayla. Both find many simple pleasures in driving. Ayla likes the freedom and seeing nature, explaining, “You get to be part of life. You are out there and seeing everything.”

Liz also pointed to a benefit of school bus driving.

“The best thing in the world about driving a school bus is sunrises,” she says. “If you’re working an ordinary job, you miss the sunrises.”

Moving Up The Ranks

New school bus drivers New drivers (l-r) Pam Byrd, Josh Cicio, Michelle Rodriguez.

SEYMOUR – Having been around school buses all his life and having a mother who is a driver, Josh Cicio looked forward to the day when he was old enough to drive his own bus. That day finally arrived this month.

Cicio, who had been working as a monitor since he graduated from Seymour High School in 2016, and two other long-time monitors at the Seymour terminal all earned their commercial driver’s license this month. All three were motivated by the same desire to secure a good job and earn a bigger paycheck.

“I always wanted my CDL, and Steve (Gardner) offered it to me when I turned 21. I signed up for classes a day or two later,” says Cicio, who began riding a school bus as a baby on his mother’s bus.

“I prefer to drive, to know that I am in control. I can focus more, while as a monitor I was more involved with the kids,” he adds.

Joining him in those classes were co-workers Michelle Rodriguez and Pam Byrd. Rodriguez has worked as a monitor for six years, while Byrd has been one for five years.

“They kept asking me to be a driver,” says Byrd, who began working as a monitor to support her family shortly after her husband’s death. She hesitated to become a driver because she enjoyed being a monitor.

“I’m going to miss my kids. They don’t know I’m leaving,” she says of the children on the bus she monitors. “I’m looking forward to their reaction when they see me driving.”

Rodriguez is just as fond of the kids she monitored. But as the mother of six children with a seventh on the way, she said it was time for a change.

“I need more money,” she said with a grin.