MEA member Julie Ingison says the pandemic means children who ride her bus can’t see her smile through the face mask, but she tries to make sure they can hear the smile in her voice when she greets them by name each day.
They also can feel her love through the huggable gift she handcrafted for each child this winter.
The 22-year U.S. Air Force veteran – now a fourth-year school bus driver in Ludington – has been crocheting for three decades, and she put her skills to work over several months creating a different stuffed animal for each of her 31 elementary school passengers.
“We were talking one day about what everybody’s favorite animal was, and I wrote that down,” Ingison said. “I thought it would be fun to make a stuffed animal specific to each child. No two are identical.
“I made a monkey, baby Yoda, jellyfish, an octopus, dogs and cats, an alligator and dinosaurs—it was quite a zoo I had going there.”
When she handed out the gifts at the end of a school day last month, they were wrapped in a paper bag with the student’s name written on it. Most of the children honored her request to wait until they were home to open it.
“They were so excited just to get something—before they even knew what it was,” she said. “Then for several days they were either talking about their animals or bringing them on the bus. And the fifth graders liked it just as much as my kindergarten and first graders.”
Ingison first learned how to make a few crochet stitches from a friend in the military in her 20s. Her aunt, a master of the craft, showed her more tricks of the trade, and Ingison eventually taught herself to read patterns.
For Project Stuffed Animals, she used some patterns to start but ventured into her own creative territory as well. “After making a few animals, you kind of figure out the basic body construction and it’s just a matter of making the ears and tails and tentacles that go along.”
Originally planned as Christmas gifts, the stuffed animals became a “just because” surprise when six new students were added to her bus mid-year. “I didn’t want to leave anyone out, so it took me longer than expected,” she said.
A Lansing native, Ingison learned to drive a bus in the military. Her regular job was dental laboratory technician – making crowns, bridges, and retainers – but her deployment role involved driving a bus and a truck with trailer for transporting troops and supplies.
She found driving a bus was fun and returned to it after retiring in Ludington with her veteran husband and their now-grown daughter. At first she didn’t realize the job would put to use the Human Services degree she earned during active duty in South Dakota.
But driving a bus is about “more than getting them to and from school,” she said. “It’s about communication and building relationships. Something we talk about often is proper courtesies and conflict resolution, like how to handle a situation when someone is bothering them.”
This year, in addition to wearing masks on the bus, students sit in assigned seats to ensure as much distance between them as possible. The regular seating pattern also helps with contact tracing if COVID-19 exposure happens.
Whenever she has a chance, while driving or waiting for students to board, Ingison gets to know the youngsters in her charge. Because she’s kept the same in-city route for four years, she gets to see them grow and change – and eventually move on.
She lets the children determine the direction of conversations – if they want to talk about school, pets, hobbies, vacations, or some trouble that’s bothering them. “A lot of times it’s just a matter of listening. They want somebody to talk to who will listen, and that’s what bus drivers do.”