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Dean Transportation: It’s all about the kids

Former special-education teacher puts caring on wheels

The entry to Dean Transportation’s state headquarters in Lansing is nebulous, spartan, almost obscure.

The company’s awards and tributes are crowded onto a countertop, stuffed into a spare room

Myles Johnson, an intern from Bowling Green State University , smiling into a mirror made by Operations Director Esther Sanford

And the CEO is a former teacher, administrator and coach, not originally trained in the ways of transportation.

But make no mistake, Kellie Dean and his people are in the right position. And for all the right reasons.

You only need spend a few minutes with Tico Berroa to discover this. Without prompting, tears stream down his face as he recalls the death of his daughter, and how Kellie stepped in, and the difference Kellie and his sons and his team continue to make in Tico’s life and the lives of hundreds of others.

Welcome to Dean Transportation. Which you might have dismissed as “that yellow bus company.”

But you would be wrong.

‘Coming here is a joy,’ says Billing Specialist Yvette Tingley

Huge, but Caring

It’s true that they are a behemoth — some 2,500 employees directing 1,700 vehicles from 45 statewide offices to transport some 80,000 students to schools in most every county throughout Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. Their main operation is spread out on 35 acres in Lansing that boasts 65 technicians, working on a fleet that rolls in and out of a cavernous garage that measures some 20,000 square feet and accommodates shifts that labor 24/7.

But it’s the Ticos of this world — and how Dean engages them — that sets them apart as a team rather than a company. It’s how they partner with an enterprise owned by Magic Johnson to provide 25,000 lunches yearly to needy kids from a bus dubbed the “Healthy Living Mobile Kitchen.”

It’s the contract they have with the Beekman Center in Lansing, which caters to kids with special needs, and how Dean steps up at special times like Christmas to create joy in their lives.

Fred Doelker, safety and training director

It’s teaming with Special Olympics … MSU football coach Mark Dantonio … the local YMCA … and many more individuals and organizations in order to bring something special to kids and families who are disenfranchised, hurting, in need.

And it’s partnering with a Lansing area hospital and a dental clinic, then re-constituting buses to deliver mobile health care to in urban centers, migrant camps and more.

As for all those awards laying about? “It’s probably important for us to get them up on a wall some day for people to know our mission and values, to tell our story,” Kellie Dean acknowledges. “But taking care of people comes first.

“And an operation with 20 buses is just as important as, say, a Grand Rapids Public School system with hundreds in place. We have the same game plan.”

That would include Tico, a bus driver who four years ago underwent irony of the worst kind, lapsing into a coma at a hospital while in a nearby room, his daughter lay dying of a lung ailment. Tico only viewed his daughter’s final service on a video, after finally coming to.

He credits Kellie Dean with helping keep his surviving family together:

“He did a fundraiser. He was constantly checking on me. He’s given so much.” Tico wipes away more tears. “You don’t know the man. He will climb on a bus and get to know everyone. It’s the way he is. And I am just one of the stories of his life.”

From Teaching to Transportation

Kellie’s own life is one of contrasts. He starred as an athlete at Pontiac Catholic High School, now Notre Dame Prep.  He attended MSU on a football scholarship, playing linebacker, tight end and punter. He graduated with a teaching degree, and along the way, developed an affinity for Special Olympics and its athletes, becoming a coach in the process.

He felt destined to be an educator and later an administrator in special education. He said “no, thanks” a couple of times when approached to jump in the transportation game nearly 35 years ago. Eventually he said “yes,” and has been in it since, and gladly brought along two sons — Patrick as VP of transportation, and Christopher as logistics and technology analyst, to join him in the business.

His business philosophy is simple, steeped in an abiding concern for others: “I tell every driver all the time to treat every student as if they were their own child.”

“I would say I feel blessed, since I started my career as an educator. It was very tough to leave the kids I had in classrooms, and I continue to miss being in a school building. But in this environment, too, I’m around kids all the time, and I am grateful for that.

‘We get our kids where they need to be,’ says Amy Joynt, special needs dispatch operator

“I left the classroom because I saw how I could make a difference in the transportation field, and I feel it’s important to provide premium care.”

He goes out of his way to make sure Dean Transportation exceeds expectations and standards. There are, for example, the minimum requirements the state imposes on school buses. And then there are Kellie’s standards, which employees learn by subscribing to the “Deanification” process, which immerses workers in a culture of care and concern that goes above and beyond.

“Training is the main hallmark of the company,” remarks Fred Doelker, director of safety and training. Adds Amy Joynt, a dispatcher, “We get our kids where they need to be, when they need to be, and safely.”

If that means more work, you don’t hear anyone bellowing about it. On the contrary. “When I see Kellie Dean coming down the hall toward me, I feel supported because he’s probably dropping by to see if there’s something he can help me with,” says Jane Butler, director of human relations.

Yvette Tingley, a billing specialist for more than four years, adds that “It’s family here, one of those rare places where you actually get up in the morning and look forward to going to work. Coming here is a joy.”

Debra Sinke has been in accounts payable nearly 20 years: “Best place I’ve ever worked.”

Human Resource Director Jane Butler says Kellie Dean makes her feel supported

‘A Real Pioneer’

In Kent County, Dean has enjoyed a 20-year relationship with Kent ISD, and gets high marks for attention to detail.

“We view Dean as a real pioneer in contracted transportation,” says Coni Sullivan, Kent ISD’s assistant superintendent of HR & Legal Services. “The quality of this company starts right at the top with Kellie, who has a long history of being devoted to the needs of children as a special-ed teacher and administrator. Those needs drove him to create his company, and you can see this dedication in the people he hires and the standards he sets. Large or small, with Kellie, it’s personal.”

“I’m starting my 34th year and I do not believe I’ve lost any enthusiasm for what we do here,” says Kellie. “We strive to be different, and not just another yellow bus company.”

Aside from operating the business in conventional ways,Kellie emphasizes something else: “We want to be involved in our communities where our employees live and work. That means working with nonprofits, teaming with organizations; any chance we can to put our wheels to good use.”

Through it all, Kellie has never outgrown his love of kids — especially those with special needs. He still chips in at Special Olympics, and at competitions he’ll see and mingle with former students who go back more than three decades.

“It’s an unbelievable organization. And the kids, the athletes…” He looks away for a moment. “Yeah, I still get choked up.”

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Tom Rademacher
Tom Rademacher
Tom Rademacher was long-time reporter and columnist for The Grand Rapids Press, where he specialized in wringing the extraordinary from the seeming ordinary.


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