With schools closed, RSU 71 bus drivers deliver food

By Kendra Caruso | Mar 25, 2020
Photo by: Kendra Caruso More than 1,000 meals sit in the Troy Howard Middle School cafeteria before RSU 71 school bus drivers and staff load them into buses to be distributed to district children in need.

Belfast — Regional School Unit 71 school buses were on the road again Monday morning, but instead of driving students to school they were filled with food for district children in need. The district closed last week to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, leaving food-insecure children at risk of going without meals.

March 23 was the first day meals were bused to children along five designated routes. The district will use about 11 drivers for deliveries during the school shutdown, according to Maintenance and Transportation Director Jacob Gurney.

He said the first day was successful, but he will modify one route and streamline the process of loading buses with food. Drivers will deliver two days' worth of lunches and breakfasts per student on Monday and Wednesday, and three days' worth of meals on Friday, he said.

Bus driver Stanley Lanphier drove bus 17 with fellow driver Carmelo “Mel” Muriel and Troy Howard Middle School Assistant Principal Alta Seekins to help distribute lunches. They followed a route through downtown Belfast to East Belfast.

Lanphier’s normal bus route is about 180 miles each day and takes him beyond Belfast, he said. But he said he had driven routes through downtown Belfast and East Belfast before and remembered where some of the students lived.

He was hired as a bus driver 11 years ago and said he wishes he had started long before that. He enjoys joking and singing to the children on his normal bus route.

“I love my job,” he said. “I think i got the best job in the world. The kids are fun; it’s like being in school again yourself.”

He kept a light tone with the few children who greeted him during the delivery. “Just eat some on your way up, there’ll be less to lug,” Lanphier joked to two little girls walking back up to their homes with their arms full of food.

But he is concerned some children might not be handling the situation very well, he said. He hopes the shutdown ends soon, but understands that the children’s safety is the top priority and they cannot return to school until the risk of contracting the coronavirus has decreased, he said.

Drivers like Lanphier are helping to sanitize and clean district schools and buildings, Gurney said. But the 15 drivers the district employs are still being paid their regular wage for the duration of the shutdown, whether they work or not, he said.

Thousands of meals expected to be distributed

Muriel started driving for the district 16 years ago with 18 years of driving tractor-trailer trucks under his belt, he said. Before school was shut down, he said, he did not hear much concern from children, but hopes they are taking the recommended precautions.

He and Seekins climbed on and off the bus to hand bags, and sometimes boxes, of food to parents or children. Sometimes they left food on doorsteps to ensure that children are fed.

Seekins said she did not care if they ran out of bags and had to make another trip to deliver more. She was insistent that “No child is going to go hungry.”

Muriel is glad the school is offering meal distribution because, he said, he understands that the district has many low-income families. “Sometimes the only meals they (students) get is breakfast and lunch.”

Food Services Director Perley Martin said he prepared 1,320 total meals to be distributed by bus. He and his staff started bagging breakfasts and lunches at 5 a.m. and buses were loaded by just after 7 a.m., he said. He said his team was very compassionate and committed to feeding the community.

Superintendent Mary Alice McLean said she expects that the district will distribute about 8,000 bags of food this week at pickup locations and by bus. Good Shepherd Food Bank donated fruits, vegetables and nonperishable items available at pickup sites.

Gurney kept a light spirit Monday while briefing drivers, but made sure to remind everyone to maintain a 6-foot distance in the maintenance building. He said his staff have been eager to help where they can and are prepared to continue the delivery process for as long as required.

“We’re all proud to be doing it (deliveries),” Gurney said. “Hopefully this turbulent time ends soon, but we’ll be in it for the long haul.”

Parents who are interested in signing up for the meal delivery service should call their children's school principal. Numbers can be found on the district's website.

Meal pickup locations are at Ames Elementary School, East Belfast Elementary School and Captain Albert Stevens School on Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 8 a.m. to noon. School is currently set to resume April 27.

RSU 71 bus drivers and faculty help load buses March 23 at Troy Howard Middle School with food to be distributed to children in need during the district's school shutdown. (Photo by: Kendra Caruso)
THMS Assistant Principal Alta Seekins hands RSU 71 Bus Driver Mel Muriel a box of meals to be distributed at one of the stops March 23. (Photo by: Kendra Caruso)
RSU 71 faculty and staff load buses with meals March 23 at Troy Howard Middle School to be delivered to children in need while district schools are shut down because of the coronavirus. (Photo by: Kendra Caruso)
Assistant Principal Alta Seekins helps distribute meals by bus to RSU 71 students in need March 23 while schools are shut down. (Photo by: Kendra Caruso)
RSU 71 bus driver Stanley Lanphier talks with fellow district staff March 23 while stopped to deliver food by bus to students in need. (Photo by: Kendra Caruso)
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