Pam Anders tries to make a difference in kids’ lives by working as a bus-driving lunch lady
Someday there’s going to be a country song about the bus-driving lunch lady.
Pam Anders, the bus-driving lunch lady, is probably right, and the song may be written by one of the hundreds of Port Washington-Saukville School District students she encounters every day.
Anders is starting her fourth year as a bus driver for Johnson Bus Co. in Port Washington. A petite 5 feet, 3 inches tall, she has no troubling handling a 32-foot-long yellow International school bus as she picks up and drops off students in all grades.
Anders is also a lunch lady who has served food at Lincoln Elementary School in Port for 11 years. When she started, her son Triston, now a freshman at Otterbeine University in Ohio, was a third-grader at the school.
She loves both her jobs — although that means 12-hour workdays — and was eager for the school year to start.
“I love working with kids. I want to make a difference. Even if I make just this much of a difference, then I’ve done my job,” Anders said, showing a very slim space between her thumb and index finger.
“I can’t say enough positive things about the children on my bus. I tell everyone I have the best route, but it wasn’t always that way. Like all children, they had to test the new driver.”
The first day she drove the bus by herself — she had ridden with another driver for a couple days — students tried eating on the bus, changing seats, shouting and picking on each other.
“That’s all changed. Now we all get along fine. As long as you set clear guidelines, they will follow them,” Anders said.
“I think it helps that I work in the school district. I expect to get the same respect on the bus as I get in school. I’ve always believed in rewarding good behavior rather than focusing on the bad.”
She said it was by luck — or perhaps the grace of God — that she got the rural route that covers the south side of the district. A popular driver, Dan Fullington, had been diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia and died later that year.
“The kids talked about him all the time,” Anders said. “They loved Dan, and then they got to love me. I’ve always believed that God puts me where I’m supposed to be.”
When Anders applied to be a bus driver, she was confident she could drive the big vehicles.
She pulled a three-stall horse trailer with an extended-cab diesel pickup truck to horse shows when she and her daughter Jessica, now 32, rode horses.
“I figured if I could back that trailer between two very close trailers at a horse show, I probably could drive a bus,” Anders said.
She trained for several weeks with Johnson Bus instructors and passed the driving test for her commercial driver’s license on the first try.
“It was like riding a bike,” Anders said. “It all came back to me.”
Helping kids comes naturally to her. Anders has fixed backpacks, helped students with homework and found lost items.
She also listens to their problems, which may be parents getting a divorce, struggles with teachers, substance abuse or a breakup with a girlfriend or boyfriend.
“Kids have always felt comfortable coming to me. I’m not sure why. I think they know I care,” Anders said.
“I look at every child and remember when I was a child. A lot of times, they just want to be heard. I see so much potential in all of them. I’ve gone through a lot in my life, so I can relate to them in different ways.”
Before she turns the key in the ignition, Anders said, she says a prayer, asking God to protect everyone on the bus. “You’re driving somebody else’s kids, and I take that very seriously,” she said. “I’m responsible for them.”
Her days are long. She gets up at 4:30 a.m., arrives at Johnson Bus at 6 a.m., completing her routes by 8:20 a.m., which leaves enough time to have a cup of coffee before arriving at 9:50 a.m. at Lincoln School, where she works until 12:30 p.m.
She then catches a 10 to 20-minute power nap at her Town of Port Washington home before returning to Johnson Bus at 2 p.m., finishing her day at 4:15 p.m.
She enjoyed her summer off, but was ready to get back into the routine.
“The best part of my job is working with the kids. Sure, I need the paycheck, but I could go anywhere to get a paycheck,” Anders said.
“When you enjoy working with kids, you could have the worst day going and it just takes a smile or something funny they say to change your whole day.”