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A Labor Day salute to those with thankless jobs

School workers toil to spruce up grounds, drive and feed students

POSTED: September 4, 2011 12:30 a.m.
SARA GUEVARA /The Times

Bus driver Charlotte Worley, with Gainesville City Schools, performs a check on her vehicle Wednesday. Worley, who has been a bus driver for 25 years, buses physically and mentally disabled children.

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On this day, most employees look forward to having the day off and enjoying a long weekend. For some people, it's seen as a day away from a mundane 9-to-5 job good for one thing - paying bills.

In many cases, all work and no thanks makes some employees bitter workers. But there are some folks who are proving that when you love what you do, you never work a day in your life.

Smiling faces

For the last 19 years, Jerry Ellison has started his day the same way.

"I'm up at 5 every morning. I read my Bible, get my coffee in and I'm here by 6 every morning," said Ellison, a groundskeeper for Gainesville City Schools System.

No matter how cold or how hot it is outside, Ellison and the other workers in his department are busy year round, making sure that things are on the up and up. You may not notice things like the pruned trees on the playground that provide shade for your child and their classmates, but you would definitely take note if the groundkeepers weren't on their toes.

Not only would lawns not be trimmed, students may not have desks to sit in when they get to class.

"Our title says groundskeeper, but you may get pulled to helped move furniture or whatever," Ellison said.

"We try to be flexible. We're multitaskers. We've got a nice staff.

"It's all of us working together, doing our part, that lets this system grow."

Although Ellison and his co-workers may get an occasional "thank you," verbal tokens of appreciation aren't what have kept him reporting for duty for nearly two decades.

"I really love working around the kids. I love seeing their smiling faces. The joy I see in them is what makes me keep coming to work," Ellison said.

"Since I've been working (with the school system), a lot of the students have grown up. They're doctors, teachers and lawyers and they remember me. That's something special."

It's a joy

"When my two children were in school many years ago, they rode the bus. I worked at the (Warren Featherbone Co.) sewing plant, but I always thought it would be interesting to be a school bus driver. I didn't try it then," said Charlotte Worley, a Gainesville City Schools bus driver.

"One day, I was looking in the paper and it said they needed some help. I came down, filled in an application and they told me to come back on Monday to train. Back then, you had to train on your own time.

"They didn't pay you for it."

That was 25 years ago.

"A lot of things have changed, but I love it just as much now as I did back then," Worley said.

"I think you really have to love kids to be a bus driver. And I really do. I love the kids as much as I do my own."

Worley leaves the city bus yard on Woods Mill Road at 6:30 every morning to pick up the first of her 12 special-education riders.

"That's a good many on a special-education bus," Worley said.

"Some you have to get strapped into car seats and the rest go in seat belts. Some of them can hook their own seat belts, but I always make sure they're buckled. Every child is different.

"Some talk and some don't, but I talk to them all the same. The look in their eye tells me they know I'm talking to them when I say their name.

"It's a fulfilling job. I think they have given me more than probably I've given to them, but I really enjoy it."

Although many things have changed over the last quarter century, one thing has not - Worley doesn't like to miss a day of work.

"If I'm not here and I know somebody else is gonna drive my bus, I worry. Maybe I shouldn't, but I feel like they're my grandkids," Worley said.

"Every child is different and I worry that (the substitute driver) won't know that this child has this, or this child I have to help, or that child likes to do it by themselves.

"These are things that go through your mind and makes you not want to be out, unless it's a pure have to because of illness. Even then, I worry. And some of them don't deal with change that well, so it makes you worry, too."

During her commute to work, Worley says her thoughts have been the same over the years.

"Every morning, when I'm coming down the road to work, I ask God, ‘If it is your will, please let me get these kids to school safely and get them back home safely,'" Worley said.

"It's a lot of responsibility because you're responsible for those children. Safety is a big thing because years ago, there wasn't that much traffic in Gainesville, now there is, so safety can't be stressed enough. The kids you're carrying, they're precious cargo.

"If the public notices me, or recognizes me, that's OK, but I'm really in it for the kids. I don't want any thanks for what I do. I'm just glad that God lets me be healthy enough to do what I do and to help the kids."

Double-duty

If waking up to cook breakfast for your family seems like a daunting task, imagine how Eva Mae Bell feels.

Five days a week, she's up before the sun, heading to work to prepare breakfast for more than 300 hungry elementary school students.

"I get here at 6 in the morning to get started," said Bell, who works in the Centennial Arts Academy cafeteria.

"We serve between 320-350 every morning. Breakfast is free so we try to get them to come on in. They get a choice between cereal or a hot breakfast."

Bell has been making sure local students get balanced meals during the school day for the last 17 years.

"Before I started with the school system, I worked in a fast-food restaurant. My sister started with the schools, and she always said, ‘You need to come over to the system honey.' Finally, I came and applied," Bell said.

"They started me out at Gainesville High School. I worked there a year and then they transferred me to (Centennial Arts Academy) because they wanted me to be a baker. So, I started making biscuits, cornbread and rolls for the high school and for here."

Despite the early hours, Bell says she likes her schedule.

"I'm raising my grandson and it's nice to be out (when he's out for holidays and vacation). I get to keep an eye on him. He didn't care for that much when he was (a student here)," Bell said with a laugh.

"And I really enjoy what I do."

When she first started, Bell says many people treated the cafeteria staff like they weren't a part of the school, but now "they've come around" to realizing how crucial food is to students' concentration in the classroom.

"In the beginning, I used to feel like some people treated us like we weren't here. But then the principals came to us and told us that we're just as important as (the rest of the staff)," Bell said.

"They let us know we mattered. I like that."

Bell leaves Centennial at 12:30 p.m., but she isn't done for the day.

"I go home and lay down for maybe 20 minutes, then I get up and head back out because I have to be at Enota (Multiple Intelligences Academy) by 2."

No, she's not heading to the school to serve up a second-helping of lunch. In the afternoons, Bell takes on another important role: crossing guard.

"I leave Enota at 3 and then I cross guard at Gainesville Middle School until about 4. I've been doing this for two years. I introduced myself by giving out Christmas cards to let the parents know who I was," Bell said.

"It keeps me busy, but I love it. Being a crossing guard is very exciting, especially if I see someone I know."

After nearly 20 years of dedicated service, it's about time for Bell to call it quits, but she's not ready to hang up her apron and whistle just yet.

"I'm thinking semi-retirement. I'll come in (to the cafeteria) to substitute if they let me," Bell said.

"But I want to do the cross guard in the morning and in the afternoons. I just love it so much. It's just wonderful.

"I felt like I was born to be here."



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