School bus drivers are known for going out of their way for the students and community they serve. Multiple local news stories proliferate around the holiday season to describe how transportation employees give to those in need. The “Miss Piggy” Project is one of those activities.
The program was first started over 35 years ago by Terri Gate, a school bus driver and later a driver instructor at Orange Unified School District in California.
Gate began collecting donations in a piggy bank for the Regional Center of Orange County to assist children and adults with special needs. The selected recipients had been orphaned and abandoned.
Known across Orange County as a kindhearted and caring individual, Gate was also an active member of the California Association of School Transportation Officials (CASTO). Her son Teddy had Down syndrome and was her inspiration. Gate retired from Westminster School District in 1998. Teddy died in 2011, and Gate died five years later.
However, the program lives on. Ellen Johnson, who was the transportation supervisor at Orange Unified School District, took on the program and ran it for 20 years. Upon her retirement in 2017, she passed Miss Piggy to Matthew Thomas, the current CASTO state president and the director of transportation for Garden Grove Unified School District.
“It was an automatic yes,” Thomas said of his answer to Johnson’s request that he assume management of the program.
Thomas explained that the piggy bank is passed around at CASTO Chapter 2 meetings, workshops and the annual boss’ luncheon held before Christmas. However, for the past two years, those events have occurred virtually. Regardless, Chapter 2, which encompasses all of Orange County, has been the second largest contributor to the program year after year, behind only the Boeing Company.
The Miss Piggy program later morphed into the Regional Center of Orange County’s Wish Tree Project, though Thomas said Chapter 2 still refers to it as Miss Piggy. Every November at the Chapter 2 meetings, a notebook binder is passed around with “Wish Cards” for 40 to 75 children and adults.
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The ages of the program beneficiaries range anywhere from 5 to 65 years old and encompass people with developmental disabilities who have been orphaned or abandoned with no family and are cared for by the Regional Center of Orange County. The CASTO members choose a card and go shopping for whatever their wishes are. Some buy a single item from the card, while others can afford all three wishes.
Then, the money collected via the piggy banks supplements the purchases of the remaining gifts, ensuring that each person’s three wishes are fulfilled. The remaining funds go toward the purchase of gift cards. Last year, Thomas said he was able to purchase $20 McDonald’s gift cards for all individuals.
“Many times, these individuals are asking for such insignificant items like socks, underwear, sweatpants, t-shirts, and shoes,” Thomas said. “It’s the little things that count the most, daily items that many of us take for granted.”