- Associated Press - Sunday, December 14, 2014

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (AP) - When things get too quiet on Miss Rhonda’s bus, she tells her young riders to start making some noise.

The bus ride to and from school is the time to let off steam, and if her kids aren’t singing and carrying on, then it’s not good, said Miss Rhonda, who, when she’s off duty, is Rhonda Rayford.

“I don’t think she has as many rules as the other bus drivers,” said Tabitha Render, whose daughter rides Miss Rhonda’s bus to and from Haley Elementary School in the northeast section of Fort Wayne. “The kids love her.”

Rayford, 50, came to the occupation a year and a half ago when someone posted the job on Facebook and it showed up on her newsfeed.

“I was looking for a ministry,” she told The Journal Gazette (https://bit.ly/1vEF3f7 ), and this was as good as any. For Rayford, ministry means serving. “So when I minister to those children, I’m going to serve those, and I want to serve those who are hurting because I don’t want anyone to hurt like I did growing up,” she said.

It turns out she loved the job so much, she convinced her daughter, Diana Leslie, to come on board as a bus driver, too.

“The hours are great. I love the people. (You work) three hours in the morning, three hours in the afternoon and extra hours if you want it,” Rayford said. And the perks don’t end there, she said.

There are benefits, and Fort Wayne Community Schools helps.

“We walk them through the process every step of the way,” said Krista Stockman, FWCS public information officer. “We have materials to prepare for the CDL (commercial driver’s license) written test.”

Starting rate is $17.19 per hour, and there is a need for more bus drivers, Stockman added.

“It costs $130 to get the commercial driver’s license, and “it’s worth every penny,” Leslie said.

What caught Render’s attention was a story she heard from her baby sitter. Miss Rhonda was giving out gloves to her riders during that first bitter cold spell in November.

“I thought it was such a sweet thing,” said Render, who posted the story on the FWCS Facebook page.

“Sounds like this bus driver is a peach,” said Jerry Thomas, who puts his granddaughter, Makenna Smothermon, on the bus every morning.

“She’s really nice, and she gives out treats sometimes, if the kids are good,” Makenna said while waiting with her grandpa for Miss Rhonda to come pick her up.

“Obviously, she’s a very special driver. She really exemplifies what we do here at Fort Wayne Community Schools. We have a lot of bus drivers that will purchase things for students that really go above and beyond to make sure students have what they need,” Stockman said.

Rayford knows what it’s like to grow up without gloves, or much of anything. During grade school, she attended four schools, landing in a neighborhood where she went to Franklin Junior High School, now closed, and North Side High School.

“I quit,” Rayford said of high school. In the debate over nature over nurture, she’s on the side of the latter. “I believe a lot of it is the environment you grow up in.”

Rayford said when she was in junior high school, she drank alcohol with the bus driver. Her home life was not good, and after all these years, she is glad to say that the family has reconciled despite that harsh childhood.

“I went to school to eat,” she said. “You suspended me, I didn’t eat for three days.”

Leslie said because of the way her mother grew up, Rayford understands what the pain of childhood can be.

“My mom is really empathetic to kids’ situations. She didn’t have the best growing up,” Leslie said.

Rayford and her husband, Curtis, practice the same sort of kindness in their personal lives. When a friend at church didn’t have the means or energy to take care of her infant grandson, the Rayfords took him in.

“He was born in prison and handed over to his grandmother,” Rayford said. Between the two, both of whom are on their second marriage, they have 12 children and 16 grandchildren. The little boy, now close to 3, is not a foster child, but someone they hope to adopt, Rayford said.

Not only is she against school suspensions because of her own experience with them, she is on the alert for bullying. “My motto is, ‘Respect me. I will respect you, and you will respect each other.’ “

Michelle Aschliman said as far as her daughter Mallory’s experience, this is true.

“If one of the kids picks on Mallory, Miss Rhonda makes sure they stop,” Aschliman said.

Which brings us back to that first cold spell.

“Kids were getting on the bus without hats, without gloves,” said Leslie. “Some of them didn’t have coats, and it’s 10 degrees outside.”

In a flash, Rayford went to Wal-Mart and bought 60 pairs of gloves.

“I got a busload,” Rayford said. The cost? “I don’t even remember. It doesn’t matter.”

Another splurge is Tom’s Donuts, Leslie recounted as her mother sat smiling during an interview at the bus depot on Cook Road. “She bought like eight boxes of doughnuts. She’ll only buy Tom’s Donuts.” The kids get their treat “when we seat belt them.”

“I went without my whole life, my whole childhood,” Rayford said. “I’m not going to stand there and watch kids go without.”

___

Information from: The Journal Gazette, https://www.journalgazette.net

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