It’s that time of the year again, when students across Colorado are busy excitedly preparing for a new school year. While some might be focused on memorizing their new schedule, finding their locker or being in classes with friends, others have a much larger worry: whether or not they’ll even be able to get to school.
For some students — like those living in foster care or experiencing homelessness — the uncertainty of transportation plays an outsized role in their days, especially since school is often the only place that offers stability for them. I have been driving Denver kids to and from school for more than a year now, and I have seen firsthand the impact reliable transportation can have on a child’s life.
A safe, comfortable ride to school can make all the difference for a young child, and it’s even more important for a child who is facing any instability at home. Unfortunately, dependable rides to and from school are no longer a given. Schools and districts everywhere are scrambling to deal with the numerous ways bus driver shortages impact students: fewer bus routes, expanding the area school buses don’t serve — meaning that more kids need to walk longer distances to school — and revised school schedules. In Chicago, bus service will not be available to 8,000 public school students on the first day of school due to the lack of bus drivers. That’s not just a faraway problem: in Colorado Springs, bus routes have decreased over the last five years from about 100 to just 59 due to a combination of enrollment decreases and driver shortages.
With school districts being stretched thin in too many ways, it’s important we think creatively about how we can help ensure Colorado students — and our schools — have the support they need. I’m proud to say I’ve found one way I can step in and make a difference, and I want to share my story.
After getting divorced a few years ago, I found myself in need of a little extra income. I was looking for something convenient that would adjust to fit with the schedule I have working as a hairstylist. I started driving with Uber and Lyft but after doing that for a while, I got tired of intoxicated passengers and long airport rides.
I was almost ready to give up on driving on my own schedule, until I came across HopSkipDrive. They work with school districts to help get kids to school, which is more important than ever given the bus driver shortage in Denver. I’ve spent years helping Denver kids as a Court Appointed Special Advocate for abused and neglected children, a Big Sister volunteer, and as a tutor. I also have two wonderful grandchildren. I have always loved being around kids. Between my caregiving experience and my volunteer history, it became clear that I could earn the money I needed while doing something that fit my values.
Now, it’s been over a year since I started driving kids to and from school. I really appreciate not having to drive at night and still having control over when I work. The flexibility fits around my life and I’m proud to say I’ve used my extra income to become debt-free and strengthen my credit score. I earn more money in a few hours than I did in a day with the other rideshare companies, and I can keep my styling business going strong. This wouldn’t be possible with a full-time job, or even a part-time job with set shifts.
What’s most important, though, is that I get to drive kids to and from local schools and activities. I meet all kinds of kids. In fact, some of the kids I enjoy most are those with special needs or disabilities. I know they benefit from my support, and they are so funny and interesting to talk to.
I often drive the same kids along the same routes, which provides familiarity and a sense of routine in terms of where I’m driving each day. It also allows me to really connect with and get to know the kids. Over time, the students I drive become comfortable with me. I remember one day, when one of the kids told me he was having a bad day but that it got better when he saw me. He called me his favorite driver. It reminded me of why I do this.
I’m a Denver native — I grew up here, and I’ve lived here my whole life. I’m lucky I found something that works for me, but more importantly, I’m glad I found something that enables me to give back. They say it takes a village, and it’s true. I hope my story encourages someone else to help out our students this year. It may just be a matter of helping them get where they need to go as a thoughtful, caring adult at the wheel.
Stacey Sweet lives in Englewood.
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