Bus drivers make an impact

February 01, 2023
Bus driver Linda Junker welcomes aboard seventh-grader Christoff

Bus driver Linda Junker welcomes aboard seventh-grader Christoff "C.J." Sewell Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, outside Edward Stone Middle School.

Linda Junker’s face lights up as she rises to greet her riders aboard Bus No. 17.

She welcomes each of them by name, asks about their day and waits patiently while they place their bags on the floor and make their way to their seats.

She looks back and forth between rearview mirrors and the road ahead as she eases the 35-foot-long vehicle into traffic, all the while managing to keep a watchful eye on her passengers.

The next two hours hold no shortage of tight turns, narrow roadways, or distractions, but Junker takes it all in stride.

“You just have to get over your fear of driving something really really big,” Junker said with a grin.

Junker conquered that fear long ago, having first started driving for the Burlington Community School District in 1979. She retired briefly in 2014 but returned that same year.

“They needed the help so bad that I came back,” Junker said.

What initially attracted Junker to the job was its schedule, which coincided perfectly with that of her children’s schools.

“When I started here, we had no men drivers,” Junker recalled. “None. It was all women, and most of us were young moms. It was a good job because we knew that we work and then our kids go to school.”

Now, men make up nearly half of the 27 drivers who gather at the bus barn each morning and afternoon before boarding their buses and driving their routes, which amount to a total of 1,898 miles. Among those men are Junker’s son, Jason.

“He was about 6 or 7 when I started driving,” Junker said. “He used to go with me when he was a kid and he loved it.”

The demographics of the job may have changed, but Junker’s memory and compassion for her passengers have not. She can still recall the names and faces of riders who graduated long ago, the dogs who waited outside to welcome them back home after a long day at school, and how bad or mild the winter was that year.

She keeps in tow a blanket for a rider prone to the cold, and tucked away near her seat is a notebook full of tips and advice for substitutes on the rare days she cannot work.

“All these kids, every one we’ve got in here, I’ve had when they were little,” she said.

At each drop-off, Junker waits until she sees her riders enter their homes before departing for the next stop.

Once all of her middle schoolers are safely home, she makes her way to Grimes Elementary School to pick up a trio of riders who like to sing. It’s something Junker encourages while she helps those who need it to their seats.

One of those students, Junker noted, soon will go on to middle school and no longer will be on her route.

“I’ve got him for one more year, and then he’ll go to Aldo,” she said, explaining that her bonds with her riders have made it difficult to decide when to finally retire. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. When the time comes and I do end up retiring, I’m going to miss these kids terribly.”

Likewise, Transportation Director Scott Mason said bus drivers play an important role in the lives of the children they serve.

“Our staff is phenomenal …

They are professionals who drive because they love interacting with kids and making an impact,” Mason said. “They are great employees and even better people.

“We share the belief that there is something special about being the first BCSD face kids see in the morning and the last they see in the afternoon.

“There is an impact that can be made just by being dependable; kids yearn for stability and knowing they get to see the smiling face of their morning or afternoon driver may be something kids come to depend upon. The staff believes this, too, and represents all of us in the best way possible.”

This year, about 1,200 students ride BCSD buses.

Mason said substitute bus drivers are always needed and encouraged those seeking fulfillment to consider giving it a try.

“If you are recently retired, and you are looking for something where you can have a direct impact on someone or something, I would encourage you to think about becoming a substitute,” Mason said.

“Kids sincerely want adults to care about them, so if anyone finds themselves looking for a way to influence a younger generation, this might just be a good way to do it.”