Taking Time To Care

Anna Serrano

WATERBURY – When 9-year-old Joseph boarded a school bus this fall, he presented an immediate challenge for his driver and monitor. Joseph is deaf, and after years of being home schooled, he was riding a school bus for the first time in his life.

“We didn’t know he was starting school,” recalled Anna Serrano, the monitor for All-Star Transportation’s Bus 52 in Waterbury. “When we got to his stop, his mother told me that he doesn’t speak and is completely deaf.  I said, ‘How do I communicate with him?’ And his mother said, ‘It’s going to be hard, but he has to start school.’

“The next day I tried to get his attention, but I wasn’t able to. And so I said (to myself), ‘Ok, something has to be done. I need to learn to at least say ‘Hello’ and ‘Come with me’ so he can feel confident,” said Serrano, who has been a monitor with All-Star for six years and prior to that drove a school bus for 16 years.

To make a connection with Joseph, Serrano reached out to a friend who is a social worker and knows sign language.  “I told her my student is signaling something to me and I don’t know what he is trying to say, and it seems like it’s important,” Serrano remembered. Joseph was constantly pointing down toward his head, which she later learned was that he wanted to watch his favorite TV show, Spiderman.

Serraano’s friend asked to meet with Joseph so that she could interpret, but since that wasn’t possible, she instead provided Serrano with a sign language instruction video. Serrano took the video home and started to teach herself sign language.

“I know a few words – not a lot – but enough to be able communicate with him so that he feels confident  and safe on the bus,” she said. Serrano also talked to Joseph’s mother and his teacher about her desire to learn more sign language. The teacher invited her to class where she could learn more, and Waterbury terminal Manager Ed Costa gave his approval. Serrano’s work schedule has prevented her from attending class, but she intends to do so in the near future. In the meantime, she’s continuing to learn sign language at home and Joseph’s teacher recently gave her a sign language instruction book so that she could learn more.

Anna SerranoSerrano and Joseph now interact on a daily basis, and the driver, John Trent, has also learned enough sign language to greet Joseph each morning. Now when he sees the bus approaching each morning, Joseph jumps up and down with excitement. His mother is so pleased that she contacted the school to express her appreciation, saying that for the first time someone was caring enough to connect with her son and make him feel comfortable.

“What she’s done is really special. It demonstrates the dedication our staff has for students with special needs,” says Costa.

When asked why she has gone through so much effort for one student, Serrano said without hesitation, “I wanted him to feel safe on the bus. I wanted his commute to be friendly, and I really wanted him to feel that it was an easy transition for him – that between home and school he could feel confident that he would be taken care of and feel secure.”

And it seems that’s just what she has done.

Doing The Right Thing

Tianie Torres (l) and Priscilla Bloom

PLYMOUTH – Sometimes policies and procedures can seem arbitrary or unnecessary. But at All-Star Transportation, policies and procedures have one goal in mind – keeping drivers, monitors and, most importantly, students safe.

Recently in Plymouth, a driver and monitor who followed All-Star procedures were able to help a student suffering a health issue arrive home safely.

Priscilla Bloom, a driver with more than 25 years’ experience, said that when 8-year-old Mary got on the bus after school, the school nurse told her to keep an eye on Mary because she was a bit out of sorts. Mary, a second grader, is a severe diabetic, Bloom explained.

Once the bus left the school, things began to go bad for Mary.

“Her sugar went down and she started to get shaky,” said Tianie Torres, who has served as the monitor on Plymouth Bus 13 since joining All-Star a year ago.

“She (Mary) has a pump, and its alarm started going off, indicating that her numbers were crashing,” Bloom added.

Following procedures, Bloom radioed the school and asked to speak immediately with the school nurse. “Good, bad or whatever’s going on, we communicate every day,” Bloom said of her relationship with the school nurse. The nurse said to give Mary a special pill that she carries with her, and that’s what they did.

“She still wasn’t feeling good, so I called back in and was told to give her apple juice. We stayed in contact with the nurse and who was in contact with her parents. We got her home safely. If she had needed more medical assistance, I would have pulled over and stopped the bus.”

Throughout the ordeal, Torres sat with Mary, comforting her and doing whatever Bloom told her to do.

Carol Giannini, the nursing coordinator for Plymouth Public Schools, was so impressed with how Bloom and Torres handled the situation that she wrote about it to Plymouth Schools Superintendent Martin Semel.

“I just wanted to drop you a note to let you know what an amazing job the bus driver on 13 (Ms. Priscilla) and her aide did this afternoon when a student was having a medical issue,” Giannini wrote. “They radioed in for help, were clear, gave me pertinent information and then followed instructions to help the student. Everything was fine in the end…and everyone did everything right. Student is home and mom was very happy with the care she received from the driver and aide.”

Gianni wrote further, “I called the bus company and spoke with them to let them know what an amazing, professional group of drivers we have here at PCS (and I’m sure across town, too).  Not only were they great this time, but they have handled other difficult situations with the same professionalism.”

Reflecting on what happened, Bloom and Torres seemed surprised by the attention. Afterall, they were simply doing their jobs and following procedures.

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.