One life at a time: How one bus driver’s compassion made a life-changing difference

By Amy Garza                                                                                                        Photo by Ernie Ontoveros

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Some days you wonder if you are making a difference. You question if your life has purpose. Are you in the right place? Are you are doing what you were meant to do with your life?

If you have ever felt this way, you are not alone.

Tempe Elementary Transportation Director Jessica Palmer thought all those things until recently when she got a letter in the mail.

The letter started like this:

“Miss Jessi: You probably don’t remember me. My name is Alex Hernandez. I rode your school bus #58 when I was at Aguilar from Kindergarten to 5th grade…”

Hernandez explained in the letter that he was teased for being small for his age. Some days things didn’t go his way, and the other kids picked on him.

He recalled: “You always shut them down.”

Palmer did remember “Alex.” She knew life at home wasn’t always easy for the boy. She never hesitated to protect her little passenger.

“I didn’t always like school,” said Hernandez, “but I sure loved riding the bus and when you showed up every day with a ‘Good morning!’ and a ‘Have a great day!’, and with the ‘Remember to make good choices,’ and ‘Come back and tell me something you learned today.’ You were the adult in my life that told me I could make a difference, I could do anything I put my heart to.”

Hernandez rode “Miss Jessi’s” bus for his elementary-school years. Palmer worked her way up to routing tech/dispatcher, supervisor and then director of transportation, a position she holds today.

“I hear you hung up your bus keys and you became the Director,” wrote Hernandez, “If you are able to pass off a little bit of your compassion to your employees, Tempe students will soar.”

She now trains her drivers to be positive.

“You set the tone for the day,” reminds Palmer. She encourages drivers to say “Good Morning” to the kids, tell them to have a good day. She explains to them, “In many cases, you are the first face these kids see in the morning and the last one they see at the end of the school day. This is your chance to make an impact, to make a difference in these kids’ lives.”

Many of her drivers tell her they don’t usually get a response from the kids. They feel like they aren’t getting through to the students. They wonder if the students are even listening. Is it making a difference? Palmer knows this all too well.

She felt that way, too—but she tells them to keep doing it.

With a shortage of bus drivers, Palmer still drives a school bus quite often. She still always says to the students, “Good morning, have a good day, make good choices, and come back and tell me something you learned today.”

Just the other day, when some of the kids got on her bus after she drove them the day before, they said, “We’re so glad you are here again today.” A little surprised, Palmer grinned from ear to ear just talking about it. That’s making a difference.

Now a senior at El Dorado High School in New Mexico, Hernandez is looking forward to attending Santa Fe Community College in the fall and wants to become a teacher.

He attributes much of his hard work to Palmer, saying, “You made an impact in my life.”

So, touched by what he wrote, Palmer wrote her former passenger back. She wanted him to know how much his letter meant to her, especially at this time in her career—and her life.

Sometimes you don’t know if you are making a difference, Palmer advises. “You may not know right away. You may never know. Don’t give up. Don’t stop trying to make an impact, because if you make a difference in one person’s life, it’s worth more than you can imagine.”




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