Bus drivers share rewarding experiences

Monroe County House of Neighborly Service teamed up with Illinois Central School Bus to “Stuff the Bus” at the Waterloo Walmart this past weekend. Pictured, Illinois Central School Bus Contract Manager Cynthia French accepts school supply donations Friday afternoon. 

Operating an almost 40-foot long vehicle is not part of many people’s day-to-day routines, but for drivers with Illinois Central School Bus in Waterloo, they would not have it any other way. 

With fears of a driver shortage as the 2021-22 school year approaches, drivers are opening up about why they love their jobs. 

These drivers say while there are many perks to driving school busses, such as having a flexible schedule and even getting to bring their own children on the job in some cases, connecting with students is the best part.  

Lynn Menke of Fults has been driving with Illinois Central School Bus for 4.5 years. At first, driving a bus was a convenient alternative from the “hustle and bustle” of her former job in downtown St. Louis, but she soon found there is way more to the job. 

“It has been an absolutely wonderful experience,” Menke said. “When I started it was more like just a job, something to do … I was very comfortable driving larger vehicles so I was like, ‘Hey, why not?’ Once I got in the door, I really started to see a different side. It started becoming more about the connections I made with the students on my bus.” 

Throughout most of her time with Illinois Central, Menke has been working the same route, giving her the opportunity to form even stronger bonds with the students she transports every weekday. 

“I’ve had the privilege of driving the same route for four school years now. This will be my fifth,” Menke said. “They become your kids. I watch them grow up … Some who, when I started, were freshmen in high school and they’ve now graduated high school and I’m watching where they’re going and their future. It really does become something where you’re invested in what happens to them.” 

Ttypically during the school year, Menke starts her day bright and early. She arrives at work at 6:15 a.m. Before the bus can even leave the lot, drivers do what is called a “pre-trip.” They make sure both the inside and outside of the bus are in “good working order,” and the mechanics check to make sure everything under the hood is working right, company contract manager Cynthia French said. 

“You get there in the morning, you get yourself settled in, they give you your key and your route sheet that tells you where you’re going … (and a student list) so you know who to pick up,” Menke explained. “They’re very good about making sure all of our buses are in top condition and that they’re safe.” 

By 6:30 a.m., Menke is on her way to pick up her students. 

“You have a designated time that you are supposed to leave the lot to start your route and start picking up kids,” Menke said. “We start dropping off the older students first. A lot of times there are designated times we are allowed to unload the kids, so if you (arrive at the school) a little early, that’s an opportunity to … get to talk to the kids. You’re really the first one who is greeting them from a school environment and you make sure they’re starting their day off on a positive note.” 

In between pick-ups and drop-offs, Menke can go home or take on additional work. 

“Obviously, the kids (provide) the most enjoyment I get out of my job, but the other thing I really like about doing this is the flexibility,” Menke said. “If all I want to do is work the a.m. and p.m. route, I can do that and go home and be done for the rest of my day. If I wish to work more, there’s always other work to be done.” 

Such tasks include fuelling and cleaning the buses and conducting bus inspections. Additionally, Menke will occasionally transport students in the afternoon to and from sporting events. 

Even though summer work is somewhat limited, as Menke said it mostly includes daycare field trips, summer school routes and programs for those with special needs, the flexibility of the job remains consistent. 

Paul Hagedorn began working with Illinois Central in March, yet is already enjoying the benefits of such a flexible job. When he is not driving his summer school route – which involves transporting children with special needs to half-day school sessions – he is helping recruit more drivers. 

This often includes sharing how he became a bus driver. 

“I’ve been retired for five years and I was completely bored, so I just needed to do something and I noticed they needed bus drivers,” Hagedorn said, later adding he encourages other retirees to apply. “If I am talking to people, sometimes even strangers, I will tell them, ‘You might want to consider being a bus driver,’ especially if they are retired. A lot of people are retired and they’re not doing much of anything. You can only travel so much and so, like me, maybe they needed something to do.” 

Hagedorn said one of the most rewarding parts of his experience with Illinois Central is serving others. 

“It’s more than just driving a bus … it’s helping my community as well,” Hagedorn said. 

Becoming a bus driver 

In order to become bus drivers, Hagedorn and Menke underwent a multi-step process. 

First, they took three written tests at the DMV in order to secure their bus driving permit. French said these tests cover general knowledge, school bus-specifics and passengers. 

Illinois Central offers a class to help future bus drivers prepare for these tests. 

Once one receives their permit, they are required to hold it for at least 14 days, French said. A DMV inspector will watch the new driver do an extensive pre-trip evaluation. 

“They go through a more extensive pre-trip process in the beginning to get their license (than they do on a daily basis),” French explained. “They’re going under the hood, they’re naming parts, they’re pointing out the things that they would look at every day (and seeing) if there is anything missing, broken, leaking, dry, rotted, whatever it may be.” 

After the pre-trip test, the instructor will also watch the new driver complete a “skills test,” which includes parallel parking, alley docking and backing up. Next, it is time for the road test, where the instructor will assess a new driver’s ability to successfully cross railroads, safely load and unload students and turn, among other things. 

If all of this is done to the inspector’s satisfaction, a CDL Class B license is issued. 

But they still aren’t ready to transport students. After the DMV issues a bus driver their special license, Illinois Central provides additional training over special topics like nighttime driving, winter driving and danger zones. A certified trainer will ride along with a driver until they are comfortable the driver can run the routes themselves. 

All this may seem overwhelming, but French said it is certainly possible. 

“I would tell (those who are hesitant) to come in, sit down and let’s talk about it,” French said. “Let us show them how, although it looks like a big task, we break it down into small portions and we move at the pace they have. When you come out at the other end, you realize ‘Wow, that looked bigger than it really was.’” 

As of now, it is hard to pinpoint the exact impact of vacancies not being filled. French and her team are working tirelessly to ensure they will have enough drivers come fall, as they recognize they may not be able to double route or pull drivers from sister locations with the pandemic subsiding. 

The only thing French knows for sure is that a shortage “is going to be a challenge.” 

Those interested in applying should call the bus garage at 618-939-8877. 

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Madison Lammert

Madison is a reporter at the Republic-Times. She has over six years of experience in journalistic writing. Madison is a recent graduate of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville; she graduated summa cum laude with a degree in mass communications. Before graduating and working at the Republic-Times, Madison worked for SIUE’s student newspaper, The Alestle, for many years. During her time there she filled many roles, including editor-in-chief. When she is not working, she likes to spend time with her dog and try new restaurants across the river.
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