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.

Teaching the Trainers

All-Star driver trainers Trainers Betty Jean Kozikowski (r) from the Plymouth terminal and trainer-in-training Robin Azzara from Waterbury lot.

WATERBURY – When it comes to ensuring that school bus drivers know how to do their jobs and how to safely navigate the roads they drive every day, no one plays a greater role than the trainers who take beginning drivers and teach them the ropes of the business.

At All-Star Transportation, trainers must undergo extensive training before they are allowed to begin teaching new drivers. Those seeking to become trainers are typically experienced school bus drivers who must pass an interview process conducted by All-Star’s safety staff before becoming a trainer-in-training. They also must have no accidents on their records, be available to work year-round and be willing to travel to any of All-Star’s 18 locations.

All-Star school bus trainers.
Trainer Sara Lozier (l) from Thomaston and trainer-in-training Tracy Manville from the Newtown terminal.

“We are always adding to our Safety Department,” says Brenda Bass, All-Star’s director of training. “We like to have two to three trainers per yard.”

Currently, All-Star has a total of more than 40 trainers, with more on the way. The newest group of trainers – two from Newtown and one from Waterbury – began their training this week in Waterbury. During their training they work with an experienced trainer, shadowing the experienced trainer to learn how to teach new drivers.

School bus mirror training
Conducting school bus mirror training.

“They start with new drivers so that they can learn all aspects of teaching so that when they return to their yards they are better prepared,” says Bass.

“It takes a while, there’s a lot to new-driver training,” she adds. “It’s a very through process at All-Star. We have very high safety standards.”

Preparing To Act

Chris Marciano Chris Marciano

WATERBURY – All-Star Transportation announced today that it is partnering with Prepare To Act to create a comprehensive training program that will teach drivers, monitors and other staff members how to respond to emergencies specific to the school transportation industry.

Prepare to Act is a safety training company based in Watertown. It was founded by Chris Marciano, a 20-year police veteran with extensive experience in personal, home, and corporate safety.

“Chris has been working closely with our safety team to develop a comprehensive program that meets our specific industry needs,” said Leslie Sheldon, All-Star Transportation’s operations manager.

“Our drivers, monitors and support staff are responsible for the safety of thousands of children each day, and it’s critical that they be prepared to cope with a wide variety of emergencies, from allergic reactions to vehicle accidents,” she added.

The new training program will be implemented company-wide to ensure that all employees are taught the same procedures. Of particular note, the new program will include training on how to administer EpiPens in response to a child suffering from anaphylactic shock to comply with a new state law.

“I’ve seen allergic reactions get very bad very quickly,” Marciano said. “The EpiPen Injection is a vital piece of the overall picture. In and of itself, it won’t necessarily save a life. What it will do is buy you the time you need to get more advanced medical care.

“With any emergency situation it is vital to stay calm, keep your mind present and focused on the task at hand, then handle it,” he added. “ You’ve got to commit to your actions and know that you’re doing the right thing.“

Training for employees will start in May and will be completed by July 1. The training also will be included in All-Star’s new driver program to ensure that all future employees are properly prepared for emergencies.

All-Star Transportation operates 18 terminals in Litchfield, New Haven and upper Fairfield Counties in Connecticut, servicing the in-district and out-of-district transportation for 35 cities and towns. During the school year, All-Star Transportation safely transports more 47,000 students every day.

Always Moving Forward

Kaylee and Sherry

WOODBURY – When it comes to experiencing life, Kaylee Rasmussen takes a back seat to no one. And that’s the way it’s always been, except for when she was a toddler and rode in a back seat as her mother drove a school bus.

In 1999 as a 2-year-old, she was a “bus baby.” That’s when her mother, Sherry Rasmussen, started her career as a  bus driver in Woodbury. Twenty years later, Sherry is still working as a driver and dispatcher in Woodbury for All-Star Transportation.

Kaylee, meanwhile, has kept moving forward. At age 17, she earned her pilot’s license and enlisted in the Connecticut National Guard before graduating from Nonnewaug High School in 2015. She became a sergeant in 2018 even while attending college. Now, she’s a senior at Western Connecticut State University with a dual major in accounting and finance. She plans on completing her studies and graduating from WCSU in 2021,  but for now she’s been deployed overseas with her military police unit.

Army Recruit“Kaylee never sits still. She’s always active,” says her mom, reflecting on all that her daughter has accomplished.

Kaylee says that enlisting in the military was an easy decision, explaining that she was “carrying on a family tradition.” Her father served in the Marines and her brother is in the Army.

Looking ahead, past deployment and college, Kaylee says she plans to re-enlist and pursue her dream of becoming a military pilot. It won’t be easy, she says. But it would be foolish to bet against her.

Can You Hear Me?

Digital radio in New Milford

NEW MILFORD – In a bid to improve communication between New Milford drivers and their dispatcher, All-Star Transportation and the Town of New Milford have combined resources to install a new digital radio system that went into operation the day after the Presidents Day holiday.

“Today was the first day, and so far, so good,” said New Milford Manager Jeff Woods. “We’re getting good reception, we’re hearing from buses that in the past we were lucky if we heard static.”

Work on the new system began months ago with new radios installed in buses, and a new base station and antenna installed at the terminal. A repeater also was installed on a town-owned tower located on a nearby hill to extend the reach of the radio into Sherman and the Gaylordsville section of  northern New Milford. When agreeing to allow the repeater to be installed on one of its towers, the town also provided All-Star with one of its digital channels on its communication system.

“It facilitates better safety,” explained John Pecha, All-Star’s director of safety and a former New Milford police officer. “Now that we are on the town frequency, police will be able to monitor” radio chatter, if needed.

With the previous analog radio system, there were many dead spots, making it difficult for some of New Milford’s 78 buses and the dispatcher to connect. This was particularly true in Sherman and Gaylordsville, due both to the distance and the hilly terrain. This required other buses that heard a call from Sherman or Gaylordsville to dispatch to relay messages on behalf of the Sherman and Gaylordsville drivers.

“Happily, this system will solve that,” Pecha said.

“The new home base also tells you which bus is calling by, displaying the number of the bus,” Woods said. “This is helpful if we don’t hear clearly.”

The Art of Teaching

All-Star trainer Gary Clark

WASHINGTON – The way Gary Clark figures it, he has been engaged in teaching and training for most of his working life. So, when he retired after 37 years at the same company and joined All-Star Transportation, it felt natural for him to become both a driver and a trainer.

Clark, 73, worked for a large chemical and oil company, beginning his career after graduating from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a degree in chemical engineering. His first job was in Costa Rica and, from there,  he rose through the ranks to eventually become president of the company’s international division.

He joined All-Star 10 years ago, about a year after building a new house in Woodbury. Clark, who says “I couldn’t find Woodbury on a map” before relocating to Connecticut, now is very familiar with school bus routes and roads throughout the Washington area.

“By the time I completed my second year, I had done every route and driven every vehicle,” he says. “Around 2011, I became a trainer. I’ve trained a lot of people in a lot of different things. I had an education as a chemical engineer, so I had to train junior chemical engineers. And eventually I became a  senior marketer, and I had to train junior marketers. Then I became an officer of the company, and I had to train everybody. There are some consistent streams or similarities in all forms of training.

“One thing that I did observe here is that we have a pretty diverse group of people – young and old, male and female – people from all different walks of life, but they all approach the (driver) testing process with trepidation, even though they know how to drive and even though they may have passed their prior tests three or four times. They are still very nervous about being able to pass their test.

“And so, what I have found is that it’s not the content of the training that is the most critical path, it is how you manage their emotional barriers to training. You learn how to handle unfounded fears. The pressure of ‘My God, I have to go in front of a stranger and do this.’ It’s really a question of getting them to understand that it’s not very hard at all and just show them what you know.”

All-Star’s good fortune in hiring Clark was the result of one of the country’s great tragedies – the Sept. 11, 2011 attacks on the World Trade Center. Clark and his wife were living in New York at the time of the attack. In fact, their home was in Battery Park City, four blocks south of the World Trade Towers at the southern tip of Manhattan.

On Sept.11, after the first airliner struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center, Clark was outside his talking with people when he witnessed a second aircraft strike the South Tower. He quickly returned home to tell his wife and her mother that they had to pack – they were getting out of Manhattan. Then later that morning as he was standing on West Street talking to a police officer about how get out of New York, the first of the Twin Towers collapsed.

“I had a clear view of the building,” he recalled. “As it started to come down, you could hear it. There was a tremendous noise because it pancaked floor on floor. It became a continuous series of explosions on the way down.”

When the tower collapsed, Clark and the police officer were overwhelmed by a fast-moving cloud of dust, smoke and debris. “It took at least five minutes before you could see your hand in front of your face,” he remembered.

When he could see again, Clark returned home, looking for his family. When he realized no one was home, he searched every building in the area looking for them. In each building he shouted for his wife, but in the chaos, he did not hear her reply. Eventually, she and others in the area were evacuated to New Jersey. Clark, meanwhile, retrieved the family car and as he was driving out of the city, he received a call from his son telling him where his wife was located. Clark had to take a long, roundabout route to  escape the city and eventually reunite with his wife.

Following that attack, Clark and wife decided they needed a home outside the city. So, he searched and settled upon Woodbury. He purchased land and built a new house, which solved one problem but created another issue.

“So, here I am in a brand-new house with brand new furniture, everything is absolutely immaculate. There is virtually nothing left to be done and my wife is working New York. And I said, ‘I can’t do nothing, I have to do something,’ and then I saw an ad in the paper for All-Star,” Clark recalled.

The advertisement announced openings for school bus drivers in Oxford and Washington. Clark went to both locations, eventually interviewing with Pam Newton in Washington, where he was hired as a driver. It was decision for which he has no regrets.

“I am happy doing this, and I get a feeling of reward,” he says.

Staying Alert Pays Off

Bus driver Randy Graham

THOMASTON – School bus drivers are called upon to perform many different tasks – keeping an eye on traffic, managing students on the bus and staying alert for the unusual. On most days, the routine doesn’t change, but on Tuesday something struck Thomaston driver Randy Graham as strange.

During his morning route, Graham noticed an elderly man sitting on the side of the road on Walnut Hill in Thomaston. The man was wearing a hoodie, despite temperatures in the teens, and looked confused. Concerned by what he saw, Graham called Thomaston police after he dropped his students off later that morning at Center School.

“I saw an old guy sitting on the side of the road. He looked dazed and confused. I knew he was in some kind of trouble,” said Graham, who worked as a police officer for 26 years before retiring. He has been driving school buses since 2011.

Graham’s instincts proved to be correct. Later Tuesday, police stopped by the All-Star Transportation terminal in Thomaston to thank Graham for his call. The confused old man suffers from dementia, and he had wandered about a half mile from his residence on Walnut Hill. Graham’s call had made it possible for the man to be returned home safely.

Graham downplayed what he did, saying, “Anybody would have done it.”

A Lifetime of Experiences

All-Star Transportation driver Jim Tomassetti

NEWTOWN – When Jim Tomassetti says that he’s seen it all as a bus driver, he’s not kidding. He began his career as a school bus driver 47 years ago, and when he starts talking about his experiences, the years flow by in an endless stream of entertaining remembrances and stories.

“My parents didn’t want me to be a driver, but I didn’t listen to them. All my friends were drivers,” says Tomassetti, who began driving a school bus at age 18 right after graduating in 1972 from Masuk High School in Monroe.

“I always knew I was going to be a bus driver,” he says, recalling a story that his mother told him. She said that when he was a young boy in Bridgeport, Tomassetti would become excited whenever he saw a city bus. “I guess I always had a thing for buses,” he adds.

When thinking back to his first days as a driver, Tomassetti becomes nostalgic. He started with the Dunn Bus Co. in Monroe, where he drove school buses for 10 years until the company went out of business. He recalls fondly driving Dodges with Ward bodies – “they had style, today they all look alike” – no power steering and no heat.

“It was all innocent,” he says of those early years. “So much has changed. The buses years ago, they made drivers out of you. I miss the shifting. You get spoiled with the automatic.”

Prior to driving a school bus in Newtown, Tomassetti drove in Easton and Trumbull, in addition to Monroe. He also drove a transit bus in Bridgeport for eight years during his off hours until he says “I couldn’t take it any longer.” One time while driving his city bus, he was assaulted by two men, one of who punched him in the face, knocking his glasses off. Bloodied, but not terribly injured, he completed his shift. Another time, a bank robber boarded his bus. The man had paid his fare, and no one knew he had just robbed a bank until police surrounded and boarded the bus to take the robber down.

“He robbed a bank and got on my bus, can you believe it?” Tomassetti says.

Driving a school bus was always the safer and better job, although it also had its challenges in the years when he first began driving. In addition to lacking heat and automatic transmissions, the buses also lacked radios. So, if a bus had a mechanical issue, the driver had to be a quick thinker and resourceful to get help and transport students safely to school.

“It was good, the responsibility,” he says, adding, “it was simpler times.”

When he first began driving in Newtown, he did so as an independent contractor. He owned and maintained his own bus, taking on the responsibility of having his bus inspected every year and fit for the road. In fact, all the buses in Newtown were operated by independent contractors until All-Star Transportation secured a town-wide contract seven years ago. After All-Star took over, Tomassetti joined its staff in Newtown.

His years of experience have taught him many lessons, especially when it comes to the care of the students he transports. He says he has more patience now when dealing with students. But he adds that when he tells his students to do something, he expects his orders to be followed and his students generally obey. Like many drivers, he also has built relationships with his parents. In fact, when he had hip replacement surgery this past summer, it was the mother of one of his students who drove to his hospital in Hartford to pick him up and take him home.

He says the worst day of his career was the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012. He had two students that afternoon that he had to take home to Sandy Hook. To protect them, he had them lie down on the bus seats so that onlookers and the news media could not see them.

“I could not stop crying,” he said, explaining that he had to take time off after the shooting to recover.

Then, pausing to reflect further on the tragedy, he added, “I do love my kids.”