As Paradise Unified School District in northern California continues to rebuild after the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history, one of its own was recognized for going and beyond.
Following the Camp Fire in November 2018, Sherry Barnes was looking to change her career as a behavioral health counselor. “I love working with kids and families,” she told School Transportation News.
Barnes was driving around the City of Paradise even as others in the community relocated following the devastative fire. She saw one of the school district’s buses with a sign on it seeking new driver applicants. “I’ve always wanted to be a school bus driver,” she recalled. “Every year I see that sign and I’m not able to take the opportunity.”
But in November 2019 she did, while also dedicating herself to restoring the Paradise community. “I gave them a call and they interviewed me, and they said, ‘we would love to have you.’ I responded with I’d love to be here.’”
Chris Rinesmith, the school bus driver trainer for the district, nominated Barnes for the Bus Guardian Hero Award presented by CalAmp. “I had evaluated Sherry as part of my role as a driver trainer,” she said. “So, I rode along with her to see how she was doing and I was very impressed with how Sherry was interacting with the children on the bus. And she would teach them about positive affirmations about themselves.
“She just had some traits as a bus driver that that really made the kids feel good about themselves and a lot of positive talk going on with her and the kids,” Rinesmith continued. “… Just little, tiny things that made the kids feel good about themselves once they got onto the bus.”
Then when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Barnes continued to foster positivity with the students. She assisted in the district’s Meals on Yellow Wheels Program, as drivers would distribute breakfast and lunch to students and families in the community. The team at Paradise USD delivered over 15,000 meals during the school closure.
“The kids can see their school bus drivers and still feel connected and not feel super hopeless,” Barnes said of the program benefits. “And then they get delicious meals, and it was really helpful at that time for parents and kids alike.”
She added that it was also a positive time for her, as she got to actually meet and build rapport with the parents, in addition to her student riders.
Receiving the Award
Amid the pandemic last year, CalAmp, a company that helps businesses and people track, monitor and recover assets with real-time visibility and insights, created a program to recognize the everyday heroes in school transportation. The Bus Guardian Hero Award honors the “finest school bus drivers in North America,” its website states. The program was inspired by “the tremendous sacrifices school bus drivers exhibited during the challenges of 2020,” it adds.
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As a Bus Guardian Hero winner, Barnes will receive a $250 gift card as well as a $1,000 donation to the nonprofit of choice. She reportedly selected Paradise Stronger, a community activation organization that played a crucial role in rebuilding in the district.
“It’s an honor,” Barnes said of receiving the award. “It’s exciting to be honored and appreciated. I’m being recognized but all of the school bus drivers could have received the same. We all put a lot of effort and detail into [making sure] our kids and parents are happy, and for the kids to have a good experience.”
She noted that the school bus driver is the first district personnel to see the child at the start of their school day, and it’s up to the drivers to create that positive experience. Barnes said she always asks the students if they’re ready for school when they’re boarding, or she will comment on their new jacket. “Just to get them mentally ready,” she said.