Seniors at a local high school received a keepsake from a surprising source.
Arlene Leonard, a bus driver with First Student Bus Service, gave handwritten letters to the graduating seniors on her bus this month. The idea came easy to Leonard. The students inspired her, she said, and so did the view out her window. After 30 years in a hospital basement as a food service supervisor, driving a school bus was liberating.
“Driving the bus to me is freedom,” Leonard said. “I get such joy seeing God’s creation. I come up with these thoughts. I pray for the kids every day on my way to the schools that they will make good decisions, receive love and have their needs met. I write them down as I think of them. I think of that person and things come to my mind.”
Sarrah Burns was one of eight seniors at Shawnee Mission West High to receive a personal letter from Leonard. Some were in cards, others Leonard incorporated in hand-crafted journals for students she grew especially close to, including Burns. Leonard embroidered their names on a quilted cover and stitched original sayings on the inside jacket. The saying for Burns was in purple thread: “Follow your dreams and fear not failure, as it may be your greatest teacher.”
“I was very thankful,” Burns said. “No one does that. I was stunned. It was amazing.”
Burns read her letter over and over when she received it.
“It was very personal,” Burns said. “It meant a lot.”
Burns says Leonard was always friendly, upbeat and engaging with the students on her bus. She went the extra mile, Burns said. She appreciated the times when Leonard picked her up at home instead of the bus stop in foul weather.
“She always had a positive attitude when she talked to us,” Burns said.
Leonard, an ordained minister at her church, says driving a school bus is more of a calling than a job. She considers herself compassionate and generous. She is always ready to dole out encouragement to people she knows.
Adolescents need to know they are valued and respected, Leonard says. She greets each student as they board in the morning, then asks how it went at the end of the day. Leonard’s route includes Westridge Middle School and Broadmoor Technical Center.
“I love the kids, seeing them mature — lots of changes in middle and high school,” Leonard said.
Leonard is often the first person her riders see in the morning. You never know their situation, Leonard said. Some climb in with tears in their eyes. She offers to listen if the student wants to talk.
“I want to give them a part of me,” Leonard said. “That’s how I feel. My passion is trying to make other people feel good and feel needed and valued.”
Senior Tiana Danford received a journal from Leonard. Tears ran down her cheeks when she read the inside cover. “Your life is a story just begun. You write the pages one by one.”
Danford said she and Leonard grew close through the years. She knew of Danford’s passion for writing.
“She reminds me of my grandmother in a way,” Danford said. “She’s very outgoing and soft-spoken at the same time. I trust her. She’s definitely helped me through some struggles.”
Leonard said her big message to the students was letting them know they are important and that they make a difference in somebody’s life. She told the teens they may not know where they are going, but to be open to opportunity. If they fail at something, it’s not the end.
“Failure can be a good teacher,” Leonard said. “If they see somebody who is a big success, they need to know that person had some failures along the way. Don’t give up.”
Connie Springfield, associate principal at Shawnee Mission West, was completely surprised when Leonard placed a journal in her hand.
“She did one for me, too,” said Springfield. “I was totally not expecting this.”
Leonard wanted to thank Springfield for her efforts. As a former supervisor, Leonard said she understands Springfield’s role as a disciplinarian. If there is a problem with a student on the bus she can count on Springfield’s support. She said Springfield makes her job easier.
“This just confirms that I make a difference every day,” Springfield said. “For a bus driver to take the time to think of people who are making a difference, that says a lot. It means she is passionate about what she does. It’s not just about being a bus driver.”