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School Bus Meal Program Fosters Community Connections Throughout Indiana County

The meal delivery program in Starke County, Indiana, not only connects the community with the school. It also fosters stronger relationships from the volunteers, as one school bus driver and his grandson shared.

Tara Pitts, transportation director for Knox Community School Corporation, said the district started providing meals to Starke County on March 16, when schools closed for in-person learning. At first, families had to pick up their food, but Pitts said that it didn’t go over too well. Only two people came to the distribution location on the first day of the meal program.

“A lot of them don’t have cars. We live in a very small community with a large amount of people who could really utilize this program through the delivery,” Pitts noted.

The meal program has grown since transitioning to delivery via school buses. The first delivery reached 30 students. Now, the district delivers to over 600 students across 15 routes.

Pitts said her staff was delivering five days a week, but it became too time-consuming. Deliveries are now made every Monday. Every student in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade receives five breakfasts and five lunches for the week.

“The kids are excited, parents are just so thankful,” Pitts said. “So, we are blessed that we can do this, for the parents and students.”

The district is continuing to pay its staff during school closures, regardless of whether or not they participate in the voluntary meal delivery program. However, she said district employees who do volunteer are receiving something extra.

“They are getting an additional percentage of their pay to come in and help due to the coronavirus and the hazards of an essential worker, that is what they are being considered during this time, because of course food is essential,” Pitts explained. “They are coming into the same contact hazards that any essential worker would come into.”

She noted that they are practicing safety precautions by wearing masks, gloves and maintaining social distancing.

One school bus driver volunteer, Gerald Shadrix, said this experience has brought him closer to his grandson Landen, who is riding along and helping with deliveries. Shadrix said he didn’t volunteer for the money, but instead as a way to help.

School bus driver at Knox Community School Corporation Gerald Shadrix and his grandson Landen volunteer to deliver meals to students in Starke County, Indiana.

“I like helping, it’s something I have always done,” Shadrix said. “I have been a minister most of my life, so I have helped out in a lot of different areas throughout the years. My grandson, he was here and was asking about the program and asking if he could go with me and help, and I said well, that would be great because the more people we have, the easier things go.”

Shadrix explained that they are not driving their regular home to school routes. However, they are still able to provide that community and familiarity to the students. He said the food delivery creates an immediate connection with the students, and he loves being able to provide them with a sense of normalcy.

Pitts agreed, noting that her 8-year-old grandson is confused about the coronavirus situation, which she imagines many younger children are. She explained that adults are better able to process it and go about their lives, but the students are having a harder time with not seeing their friends, going to school and getting on the school bus.

“Whether or not they are students that you have every day or students that you are just now meeting, they become your students — we love our job,” Pitts said. “And every single driver out there is doing this because they want to help the students as much as we can.”

She said when the buses show up to deliver the food, the students are able to engage in conversations at a safe distance with people other than those in their immediate household.

“We want our parents and students to know that we care,” Pitts said. “That is why we are doing this, because we care about them. And we want to help them in any way we can, so if it’s just giving them a simile, and a container of [milk] to make their day. That is the best thing possible.”

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She added that she is extremely grateful to all the volunteers who are helping to deliver meals. Some community members are using their own vehicles, and even some students in the school system, or students like Landen who are homeschooled, are helping.

“We are so thankful for the students who want to help us distribute the food for the school system because they can connect with the students as well, and it’s letting [students] see that it is important to help each other,” Pitts explained. “As a community, we need to stand strong and help each other, and Landen is a vital part of that.”

Landen said he also enjoys spending more time with his grandpa.

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