Rockford bus driver Russ Clark, known for his dedication to the students with cognitive impairments who ride his bus, was recognized as the statewide Education Support Staff Professional of the Year at a surprise assembly in December.
The MEA member was selected from among 250 nominees for getting to know students individually and showing them he cares. Shy and humble, the 66-year-old retired factory worker drives students with varied needs, ranging from elementary to high school age.
His passengers think he’s fun. Parents say he’s patient and attuned to children’s needs.
One of those parents—Beth Walla—is an MEA-member fourth-grade teacher in the district who understands that driving a bus is challenging in itself. Add in students with special needs, such as her non-verbal daughter Libby, and “It takes a special person,” she said.
“He loves her like a grandpa,” Walla said. “To know when she gets on the bus with him, she’s safe and loved and cared for and her needs are taken care of. That’s priceless.”
Clark began driving a bus 10 years ago, after retiring from 32 years at a GM plant. Before marrying his wife Carla 21 years ago, he raised two daughters alone. He has always connected with kids, and children with special needs are no different to him, he said.
“You treat them like they’re your own,” he said in an interview after the ceremony. “They have feelings. You’ve just got to listen and try to understand.”
Every child on his bus gets a card and gift on their birthday and treat bags at holidays and the end of a school year. The kids on his bus enjoy listening to Clark sing along to the radio. “It makes the kids laugh, so I keep doing it,” he said. “It’s just another way to reach them.”
However, every day is not filled with songs and laughter. His kids struggle with many challenges, which can lead to meltdowns. Some children have ongoing physical issues, such as seizures, which can suddenly arise.
During an emergency, he has had to stop the bus to call 911 and contact parents. Because he knows his students well, he can recognize a problem when it’s brewing and alter his route to get a child home sooner, Rockford Transportation Director Jacquie Fase said.
“Going down the road, looking backwards in a mirror, he can tell if he’s got a kid in trouble,” Fase said.
Clark seemed uncomfortable with the praise. “They’re my friends,” he said of the children. “They need a lot of attention, but they give back much more than they receive. I’m just happy they think as much of me as I think of them.”
As part of the award—which made a return in 2019 thanks to a partnership with MEA, AFT Michigan, and AFSCME Council 25—MDE presented Clark with a check for $1,000.