When it’s just 18 degrees outside, Traverse City Area Public Schools bus driver Marti Alvarez is used to kids complaining about the cold. But one kindergarten child who climbed aboard the bus on a late February morning was different.
This little girl broke Alvarez’s heart and spurred the 18-year veteran driver to action.
The kindergartener said her toes were freezing, and Alvarez gave her the seat by the heater, but even that didn’t help. As the bus arrived at school, the girl returned to the front of the bus crying about her cold feet. That’s when Alvarez asked to see her socks, and discovered she had none.
She wore vinyl fashion boots with a broken zipper and no socks, and “It hit me hard,” Alvarez said. “I just hugged her up and said ‘Go inside. Go to the lost and found box and put on some socks.’ Then I called the principal so I knew she’d be taken care of.”
Later, sitting in her supervisor’s office crying about the incident, Alvarez was struck by a thought. The next day, she asked all of the kids on the bus if they wanted some warm socks to wear. When five or six hands shot up, the Traverse City Transportation Association’s “Warm Toes Sock Drive” was born.
The week-long sock collection involving all of the TCAPS drivers ended last week, netting 3,508 pairs of socks in the effort – thanks to radio, television, and digital coverage that allowed Alvarez to blanket the airwaves with appeals for help.
“I made a call out to the listenership of the radio stations that this was an opportunity to turn their helpless feeling into a hopeful feeling,” she said.
Drivers collected socks from parents at bus stops, and community donations came in to the transportation office. In addition, Alvarez applied for a grant from MEA and was awarded $1,000.
“We were all practically crying yesterday at the bus garage,” she said. “Getting all these socks warms my heart, because I know the kids are going to be warmed up. I told all of the bus drivers, ‘We moved from being bystanders to being upstanders.’”
Alvarez credits the drive’s success with all of the training she’s received through MEA and NEA. “Prior to my training, I probably would have gone home and curled up and cried about it, and that was it,” she said. “But I can’t do that anymore, thanks to my MEA and NEA.”
Three years ago, Alvarez was approached by ESP Caucus President Connie Boylan, a TCAPS library media paraprofessional, to get more involved in the union. Although Alvarez wasn’t sold on the idea, she attended the Summer Leadership conference to get her feet wet – and never looked back.
Since then, she’s attended MEA and NEA conferences, including emerging leader training and the intensive eight-month NEA ESP Leaders for Tomorrow program. Now Alvarez is co-chair of her coordinating council and participates in Region 15 activities as time permits.
“Now if I see something going on, I have to take action – even if it takes me out of my comfort zone,” she said.
That happened when a scheduled radio interview got cancelled after an electrical storm knocked out power last week. Initially, the producer said they could not fit in a rescheduling, Alvarez said. “I grabbed her by the hand, and I said ‘Please don’t do this. Please. We really need you, and we need your listenership to pay attention to this.’ I had to jump out of my comfort zone. I had to beg, but I don’t care. I’m not too proud to beg, because I got the result I wanted.”
The only interview time available was the next morning during a driving shift. However, she knew it was during a little break in her route, so Alvarez got permission to call in to the radio show from her bus. At 7:07 a.m., she pulled over to the side of the road and asked the garage for permission to secure her bus. “My supervisor came on the radio and said ‘10-4, you have my permission.’”
Alvarez said all of the TCAPS drivers deserve accolades for joining together to make the drive successful. “They’ve come off the sidelines and moved to the front lines,” she said. “Someone has to be a voice for those who are voiceless.”