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Dad Turns School Bus Driver for Son with Special Needs

Reports repeatedly surface on the school bus driver shortage, late or canceled routes, and the resulting surplus of angry parents who rely on the school bus to get their children to school.

However, one parent decided to take things into his own hands. Rick Daynes, a father of five, three of which have special needs, became a school bus driver for Poway Unified School District near San Diego, California, so his children had consistency on their way to and from school. As of last school year, the district was short about 50 drivers.

Daynes said that before his first son started kindergarten in 2005, he and his family moved from Florida to the Poway community in California. It is the district all his children have attended, and now the youngest, Eli, is taking the school bus to school. He shared that three of his children have special needs, which means three different Individual Education Programs. Eli, 10, has Down syndrome, Rick said, and he loves the school bus.

The elder Daynes recalled answering phone calls several days last school year from the district’s dispatcher at 5:30 a.m., stating the school bus was going to be late. He figured that the district was short drivers, especially after realizing that a different school bus driver was showing up nearly every day.

“I know that the bus is late in my neighborhood and it’s late to other neighborhoods,” he said, relaying conversations he had with other parents. “Everybody’s up in arms. When are they going to get their act together? When is someone going to do something about it? And I just thought, you know what, instead of everybody just sitting here wondering when someone’s going to fix it, why don’t I step up to the plate and give it a shot?”

Daynes’ full-time career is in sales, which offers a flexible schedule, he noted. He had his own company but shared that it became too difficult to run the day-to-day operations while also raising three children with special needs. He wrote a book designed for dads with children with special needs, “Keep It Together Man,” that spells out the scarifies that sometimes need to be made, he explained.

“And, so, in all honesty when the situation came around, I was kind of like, you know, am I going to practice what I preach?” he continued. “Am I going to get out of my comfort zone? Am I going to make a difference? And it was kind of moment where I thought you can crawl back into your routine, and you can go back to what you’re comfortable with or you can try to make a difference.”

He admitted he was not fully committed to the idea of driving when he called the district in February to inquire about what it would take to become certified. But the district informed him that a school bus driving class was starting the following week, one of only three opportunities for the year, so Daynes said he needed to take full advantage.

“I went the first day and then I remember in the middle of the class on day three, I guess I’m all in,” he shared.

About two and half months later, Daynes passed his commercial driver’s license test and became a certified driver at the end of April. His goal was to drive Eli, but another driver was already assigned to the bus route. Ultimately, the other driver bid on a different route.

“When I signed up, I kept thinking to myself, I’m going to be his bus driver,” Daynes remembered. “I just kind of had a feeling.”

He said when it came time for him to pick his route, Eli’s was still available. “All the planets, all the stars aligned. And I got it,” he said, adding that he also was able to get Eli’s summer school route.

The first day that he was set to pick up his son, Daynes recalled how nervous he was as Eli had no clue. He admitted that he only slept a couple of hours the night before. He didn’t know what kind of reaction Eli was going to have, but the district communications director for the district and Frank Kenny, the school bus driver trainer who taught Daynes, rode the bus that morning to witness what happened.

And Eli’s reaction? Daynes said it was priceless.

Despite Daynes only signing up to drive mornings, he said he ended up falling in love with the job and now drives the afternoon route as well. Plus, he said the district’s benefits were an added incentive to work more hours.

“It’s so much fun, and it’s so engaging. It’s so rewarding,” he said. “What I preach a lot is engaging with those kids and helping them to transition from home to school.”

Rick Daynes, a school bus driver for Poway Unified School District in California picked up son Eli, 10, from his house as his new school bus driver. Daynes went through the training to be a driver after hearing of the school bus driver shortage at the district. (Photo courtesy of Poway Unified School District.)

He added that he takes pride in picking up the students, getting out of the bus, and squatting to be at their eye so he can connect with them. “And when we go to school, I am engaging the whole way. We are talking, we are counting, we’re doing math, we’re spelling,” he said. “I’m asking them simple questions. What’s your name? What’s your favorite color? To figure out how high functioning they are, what they want to talk and about what they don’t want to talk about.”

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Another great tool to engage the kids, he advised, is by playing music. Disney soundtrack playlists are extremely popular, Daynes added, noting that many of the students sing along. “I love, love handing the kids off to the teachers and the aides [at the end of the route], they walk out of my bus with a smile and they’re ready to go [to school].”

He continued, adding that he is all about the kids and doing anything he can to help promote school bus drivers. He said after getting his CDL, he was surprised but happy to see four or five other bus drivers who are also parents of children with special needs.

“The little yellow bus has been pulling up to my house for like 15 years,” Daynes said. “We’re no stranger to special needs, and we’re no stranger to the little yellow bus pulling up and picking up our kids. I just never thought that I would be driving the little yellow bus.”

Now, Daynes said he helps provide special education training for the district’s new drivers and sits in on in-service meetings to help where he can. He has also provided several presentations on, “What I Want from Every Bus Driver, a Parents Perspective.”

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