Transporting precious cargo

Local school bus drivers share their stories

Washougal School District bus drivers, from left, Rachael Bentley, Charlie Dawson and Connie Allred credit a postive work environment as the reason for their longevity on the job. “You couldn’t ask for a better group of people,” Allred said. Buy this photo

Did you know?

Every day, 77 bus drivers in the Camas School District transport 2,967 students. In Washougal, 50 drivers transport 1,600 students.

Qualifications: To become a bus driver, applicants must have at least a high school diploma or equivalent, possess a valid Washington State driver’s license, be first aid and CPR certified, and earn a CDL license. Typically, training is provided by the district. Previous experience working with children, the ability to be flexible, and a good rapport with students and co-workers and is also desired.

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Debi Lasselle (left) enjoys her job transporting special needs preschoolers for the Camas School District. “The biggest challenge I have is becoming too attached to the kids. They are wonderful,” she said.

Driving a school bus can be a tough job, but also incredibly rewarding.

Just ask Connie Allred.

After a few weeks driving a bus for the Washougal School District, the driver was ready to quit.

“I came to the office in tears, thinking, ‘I’m too slow and too short and too stupid to figure out how to do this right.’”

But when co-worker Rachael Bentley saw her distress, she told Allred, “If I can do this, you can. You have the right personality for it. Give it time.”

Almost five years later, Allred is still with the district. And there’s no other job she’d rather do.

“You couldn’t ask for a better boss or better group of people to work with,” said the petite, energetic driver. “And I love to greet the kids when they get on the bus in the morning. After school, they are so excited to tell you what happened to them. It’s usually a different story every day. It makes the job worthwhile.”

Allred, 52, decided to give it a try after being convinced by a friend who was a driver.

“I told her, ‘I can’t drive one of those buses. I am only 4 feet, 11 inches. They are too big,’” she recalled.

But her friend’s persuasiveness won out, and Allred applied to work for the Evergreen and Washougal school districts.

“I got the call from Theresa Thomsen (transportation supervisor) and here I am,” Allred said.

Bentley, 39, began driving for Washougal 10 years ago.

“I thought it would be a great job for a mom,” she said. “I would get to work and still have summers and vacations with my children. I am the first face many of those children see in the morning, and I can help make a positive difference.”

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“I never know what to expect. It may be the same route every day, but always different scenery. I have the best picture window in my ‘office’ that you could have.” — Chyrel Uthe, Camas school bus driver

Charlie Dawson, 61, was hired by the transportation department four years ago, after some drivers who had taken her first aid classes persuaded her to try it.

“I’ve really enjoyed this,” she said. “It’s a great group of people to work with and I like being the first face the kids see in the mornings. I always greet them with a smile, because it may be the only one some see all day.”

The three drivers transport children of all ages, from preschool to high school. The biggest challenge is learning their different personalities and keeping calm under pressure.

“You have to keep your cool, even when they are trying to get the best of you,” Dawson said.

Another challenge all three agreed tops the list is driving a bus full of children in winter weather.

“I am not a fan of driving in the ice and snow, especially going up and down all the hills around here,” Bentley said.

Driving a bus is not for the faint of heart: It’s loud, there are sometimes 50 or more kids and drivers must be aware at all times. That being said, none of the Washougal drivers regrets their career choice. They credit Thomsen for the positive work environment.

“Our boss is amazing,” Bentley said. “I could call her at 2 a.m. with an issue and she’d be there for me. She takes good care of us.”

Thomsen said that having enthusiastic drivers is what makes her job enjoyable.

“When the parents like and respect the drivers, it makes all the difference in the world,” she said. “We have a lot of positive people here.”

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Chyrel Uthe completes a pre-trip check before heading out on her afternoon route for the Camas School District.

Camas School District transportation department

Before becoming a bus driver, Debi Lasselle had two words to describe what she thought of the job.

Utter chaos.

The no-nonsense truck driver couldn’t imagine willingly putting herself on a bus full of kids.

“My friend talked me into applying for it,” she said. “I kept saying, ‘No way.’ Finally I relented but told myself I’d do it for a few years.”

Eighteen years later, she’s still here.

“I have to eat my words all the time,” said Lasselle, 58. “I love this job and the kids are great.”

Although she has transported all ages, Lasselle now drives the littlest Camas School District students: special needs preschoolers.

“It is so much fun,” she said. “It’s such a big thrill for them to ride the bus. The main challenge I have is that I get too attached to the kids.”

Over the years, Lasselle has attended various students’ sporting events and even birthday parties.

“I have great kids on my bus and wonderful parents,” she said. “That makes all the difference in the world.”

Chyrel Uthe, 53, was born and raised in Camas, and graduated a Papermaker.

So when one of her friends suggested she drive a bus for the district, it made sense.

Uthe was in the food service industry, and grew tired of working holidays, nights and weekends.

“It took me a few years to get the courage to do it, but I decided to make the jump,” she said.

Seventeen years later, it’s a decision made with no regrets.

“Before I began I would only hear the negative, but really, the good definitely outweighs the bad,” Uthe said.

Every day, she transports children ranging in age from 5 to 18. It’s a diverse group, but overall, she describes them as fairly well behaved.

“The kindergartners are very busy so you’re always giving them reminders, and the middle schoolers can get really rowdy,” Uthe said. “It’s hard because their bodies are changing, too. High school is my favorite age group. They are polite and well behaved.”

Uthe enjoys how her job is different every day.

“I never know what to expect,” she said. “It may be the same route every day, but always different scenery. I have the best picture window in my ‘office’ that you could have.”

Her advice to new drivers?

“Safety is always first,” Uthe said. “Have patience. Kids will be kids and teens are teens. You can’t expect them to be perfect or controlled.”

Both drivers said part of what they enjoy most about their jobs is the positive work environment. They credit Transportation Director Laura Nowland.

“Laura is so involved,” Uthe said. “I tell her all the time that she makes it a pleasure to come to work.”

Nowland said that the job the drivers do is “phenomenal.”

“They’re very involved people and take pride in what they do,” she said. “We are a team here. It’s like a wheel. If the spoke is broke, the wheel doesn’t roll.”