EFFINGHAM — With classes just around the corner, one of the first people your child might encounter this school year could be the bus driver who picks them up each morning.
It takes flexibility, kindness and patience — and sometimes nerves of steel — to be the driver of a school bus. One husband-and-wife team say they love what they do for Unit 40 school children.
Tammy Birch, 61, is in her 30th year of safely getting students to and from school and extracurricular activities. Her husband, Allen Birch, 63, started driving part time about 1996 on a two-hour route, and then became a full-time bus driver in 2004.
"You develop good relationships with the kids," said Tammy. "You are the first person they see and one of the last ones they see."
"How pleasant you are to them makes a difference," said Allen.
The Birches said leaving home early each morning begins with their bus’s safety check. Drivers are responsible for checking the engine’s oil and refueling the bus, among other things.
They hit the bus route around 6:30 a.m. After dropping kids off at school, a follow-up check back at the bus barn ensures nobody was left behind asleep in a seat. At the end of the day, a full bus interior clean-up is also part of the job.
"Ideally, it takes a special kind of person to be a school bus driver," said Allen. "You need to be kind of flexible on your hours. You aren't going to make a living driving a bus for four hours a day. But, if you are semiretired or have another job or another income, it works."
They said having weekends and holidays off, plus summers, to do as they please, makes it a sweet deal. But that isn't the best part.
"The best part is getting to know the kids well," said Allen.
"You get really attached to the kids,” said Tammy. “It's an enjoyable job. You should enjoy your work."
In the beginning, Tammy opted for the part-time job just to fill some hours while her children were in school. Eventually, it became both a morning route and an afternoon route. In between, she worked the midday as a cashier at Effingham High School.
Allen was working full time at World Color Press on third shift, but grabbed some afternoon driving shifts for extra income and to be the driver for sporting events, which their children were involved in.
In 2004, the printing company closed its doors, and at the same time some full-time school bus drivers retired.
"I was able to get insurance and benefits and it all fell right into line so I didn't have to do without after World Color closed," said Allen. "There were three of us who all started driving a bus at the same time and were able to get full time at the same time."
The couple said they are now driving children and grandchildren of some of their earliest passengers.
While some things stayed the same, driving a school bus has changed in other ways. Tammy said when she started driving, all of the buses were manual transmission, so everyone had to learn to drive a stick shift.
Cameras have been added to both the front and back of each Unit 40 bus, which cuts down on unwanted activity on the bus.
Allen said Unit 40 has its buses on a rotation system so every five years or so, drivers are put in a new bus.
“Unit 40 always has good-running buses,” Allen said.
Tammy drives a bus with a capacity of 38 passengers while Allen drives a bus with the capacity of 71.
Now with their two children grown and six grandchildren, the Birches have no plans to fully retire yet.
“I was a stay-at-home mom," said Tammy. "He (Allen) thought it would be a good job for me to have so I could be home when the kids were home. I had no idea I would be driving this long."
Contact Dawn Schabbing at firstname.lastname@example.org or 217-347-7151, ext 138