Byron Center — Bus driver Donna Tipton knows how to brighten her students’ day, whether it be with a happy “Good morning,” or by responding in kind to one boy’s daily, wise-guy style “Get outta here!” crack as he departs.
And her 45 students get the giggles when she addresses them as her “fine-feathered friends.”
Tipton, a district bus driver for the past 14 years, is known for her sense of humor and the way she interacts with students and families, parents say.
Even in a year of transporting students during a pandemic — where requirements of masking, social distancing and contact tracing are part of the job — “Miss Donna”, as students call her, brought levity and a sense of nurturing to her role, knowing she could help students begin and end the day on a positive note.
“You try to make the best of it,” Tipton said, shortly after her morning route on the last day of school. “They are struggling; you’re struggling. I like to give them something else to think about.”
On Miss Donna’s bus, she lets the kids know, “You are still going to have fun.”
In the Railside neighborhood, parents appreciate her efforts so much they wanted to say thank you in a big way. Mom Shannon Smith invited neighbors to chip in for a financial gift, and about 30 families contributed.
On the Thursday before school ended, Tipton drove into the neighborhood to find a crowd of people waiting.
“All these people were standing there. I thought, ‘Whose birthday is it?’ Then I realized, those are my parents. Those are my kids. Then it hit me — they all started screaming and hollering,” she said.
They presented Tipton with a jumbo check for $1,000, made out to “The Best Bus Driver Ever” and, on the memo line, “We Love You!”
“It was so surreal I started to cry,” Tipton said.
Many people were eager to give, Smith said, and she loves the message behind that generosity.
“We organized the gift for Miss Donna because I think it’s important to tell people when you appreciate them, and I think it’s important for kids to see that modeled,” said Smith.
She also simply wanted to show gratitude to the person who brings her son, Reid, a rising third-grader, to and from school every day, said Smith.
“(Tipton) always goes above and beyond,” she said. “She goes out of her way to make sure everything is good. She is like a legend in the neighborhood.”
Mom Tracey Furlong said she’s thankful Tipton has been the bus driver for all four of her children, providing fun but always making safety the number-one priority.
“I feel so confident that she is keeping our kids safe and she pays attention to such details about making sure every kid is going to get to where they need to be,” Furlong said.
Furlong’s daughter, Claire, who is going into second grade, also loves Miss Donna. She particularly liked how Tipton wore a Fourth of July headband on the last day of school.
“I think she is very fun, and she likes to do a lot of fun stuff,” said Claire. “Sometimes she gives us little treats and she is very nice. She is very funny. I like her as a bus driver.”
Building Trust and Relationships
Tipton works hard to build strong relationships with parents. She gives them her personal phone number so they can call her directly and so she can contact them with any concerns. She also calls to introduce herself to families who are new to the district and those with kindergartners riding for the first time.
“I want those parents to feel comfortable with me having their children,” said Tipton. “It’s a big deal to put your trust with somebody when it comes to your kids.”
Transportation Director Lisa Blain sees evidence of that in everything Tipton does. She describes her as someone who interacts and talks with students, makes sure they are doing well and that nothing is amiss. It’s never just a bus ride.
“Donna has the kindest, most caring and loving heart,” Blain said. “This job just comes so natural to her and she makes it look so easy because, to her, it’s second nature to care for people and her kids.”
A Byron Center native, Tipton graduated from the district and has two children who are Byron Center alumni as well. She said driving the bus is the greatest job she’s ever had, and she loves being a part of students’ lives.
“I’ve always said that when I am done and retired, if one child can say ‘I remember my bus driver,’ I know I’ve made a difference.”
Added Blain, realizing the humility in Tipton’s statement, “I think there will be more than one (child).”