Cedar Springs — At first, Alesia Turner didn’t notice that her son’s backpack was missing. The busy mom of three was preparing dinner after school when there was a knock on the door.
“It was at, like, 6:00 at night,” she recalled. “My husband answered the door, and it was Mr. Jeff with the backpack, saying, ‘Silas forgot this on the bus, and I just wanted to make sure you had it in case there was anything important he needed.’”
“Mr. Jeff” is otherwise known as Jeff Gamble, a Dean Transportation driver who’s made a big impact on families since he began driving for Cedar Springs a little more than a year ago. Whether it’s drying a student’s tears or asking about a family’s new puppy, Gamble’s goal is to be a positive influence for his students, no matter the circumstances.
“He genuinely cares about our kids,” Turner said. “I don’t know what I would have done if we’d lost that backpack; it’s got everything in there. Just making that quick trip after his route for us makes a huge difference, and I know he’s done the same thing for my neighbor’s kid and others. We’re really happy and grateful for him.”
Gamble, who is retired from 40 years working at Steelcase, said he was inspired to become a driver after witnessing an interaction between his grandchildren and their bus driver.
“He pulled up this one morning with such a smiling face and warm greeting, and I watched my grandkids smile, like now they wanted to go to school,” he said. “I noticed what a difference that guy makes, and I told my wife, ‘I’d like to be a part of that, too.’
“So now, I look at all my kids (on the bus) like they’re my grandkids. I’m like a grandpa who inherited all these grandkids, and they’re all so special to me. And I get to meet all their parents, too, and it feels good to know that they trust me getting their kids to school safely.”
Gamble said he always makes sure to greet students enthusiastically and pays attention to body language to know when a child may need extra attention. He keeps a bag of ring pops candy nearby in case someone needs a little cheering up. When the bus is parked for pick-up or drop-off and a student wants to have a conversation, he intentionally makes eye contact so the student knows he’s listening. And if a child needs to be disciplined during the ride, he makes sure to drop them off with extra cheer.
“I make sure to tell them to have a great day or that I’m looking forward to seeing them in the morning, because I don’t want them to leave that bus thinking I’m mad at them,” Gamble said. “How you interact makes a big difference in the kids’ lives, or even in how the rest of their day goes. And they can tell if you’re sincere — kids aren’t stupid. So I want them to know, with 100% honesty, you’ve got one bus driver that cares.”
Providing Water Bottles and Cheer-up Chats
And the school bus isn’t the only place where Mr. Jeff builds those relationships. Besides dropping off stray items to families after finishing his route, Gamble and his wife make a point of attending soccer matches and other outdoor activities for “his kids.” After one student’s favorite water bottle broke in an unfortunate incident, he went out and purchased three more—two for the student, and one for his brother. And for Halloween, he volunteered to pass out candy at a local church, which is also a bus-stop location where 14 of Gamble’s students get dropped off.
“I knew my kids would be there, so of course I’d want to help,” he said. “If I can make a little kid’s world better, I’m gonna do everything I can. So on Halloween they were all like, ‘Mr. Jeff, what are you doing here?’ And I go, ‘Well, I really want to see you guys!’ and I think that made them really happy.”
In the Turner household, Gamble has made a difference especially in the life of first-grader Silas, his mom said. Silas sometimes gets picked on, and Turner said Gamble has gone out of his way to cheer up the boy and boost his morale.
Because Silas sits in the first row on the bus, the two have also had many conversations about school and family. When Silas shared that his mom was due to have a baby last fall, Gamble purchased two outfits for baby Libby — one for now, and one to grow into. To thank him, Turner brought the baby out to the bus shortly after she was born, “so that she could meet Mr. Jeff,” Silas said. “That made me feel excited, because he does really kind stuff for us.”
To have Gamble in her children’s lives is a bright spot in this challenging school year, Turner said.
“Just to have a simple 10-15 minute bus ride with him can make the whole day different,” she said. “Knowing that if my son’s been having a bad day, Mr. Jeff’s there to tell him everything’s OK, does so much for me as a mom. He’s a light in that school district — he definitely shines bright.”