Bus driver uses puppet theater project to help encourage student safety

Chris Willard

ANGOLA — When Chris Willard isn’t driving a school bus, she is busy advocating for school bus safety. She has been driving bus for Lake Shore School District for 18 years and in that time has emerged as the district’s unofficial playwright for puppet theater.

The scripts focus on bus readiness and anti-bullying and the performance troupe consists of fellow drivers from the district’s Bus Safety Team, which she co-chairs with Linda Bantle a 20-year driver with the district.

This past spring, the team performed puppet shows at 15 area pre-schools. “We go into schools and educate students on the proper and safe way of riding a bus and how to cross,” she explains. “We’ve had great support from all the principals. They’re very kind and very receptive to bus safety. They always put bus safety first.”

In the fall, the team conducts 45-minute safety sessions with games and puppet shows at district elementary schools. The message hits hard on staying out of danger zones, crossing far enough away from the front of the bus and watching for the driver’s signal to cross. It’s not just the bus driver who is in charge of bus safety, they emphasize, it’s the passengers, too. “It’s a team effort,” she says. “The driver looks and listens and you have to look and listen yourself.”

The team doesn’t just preach the message, they want the students engaged with it. “It’s very hands on,” she says of the 25 puppet shows and live skits performed last year, “with games and activities like ‘Minute to Win It.'”

The Bus Safety Team also sponsors an Eagle’s Nest incentive in each Lake Shore school. “There is an eagle’s nest in every building. That’s a plastic box with a fake bird’s nest on top and a slot to put your ‘eagle names’ in. The bus drivers nominate children for good behaviors and once a month, names are drawn from the box,” she says. There will be two names drawn for elementary kids who have been well-behaved and they will each get a $15 gift card. One name is drawn at the Middle School and one at the High School, and those students get $25 gift cards. “It costs about $1100 a year to run,” she says, “and the bus drivers raise that money.”

The team also encourages participation in the Western New York Association for Pupil Transportation annual school bus safety poster contest. “The Bus Safety Team awards prizes and an ice cream party for the classroom of the overall contest winner,” she says. The 1st place winner this past year was Dakota Bastedo, a 2nd grader at Lake Shore’s Highland Elementary School.

For Mrs. Willard, it’s about more than just driving a bus. She is taking care of the district’s students, transporting them, and keeping them safe. “The kids are the best,” she says, “Especially the little ones. They can make your day. I truly love my Middle School and High School kids, too. It’s a great job.”