GARDINER — Wednesday was Les Crockett’s first gig of the season.

He was at the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Gardiner, dressed as Santa Claus. But that’s not his only venue.

Crockett, a bus driver for the Gardiner area school district, doesn’t necessarily wait for a holiday to put on one of his 30 or so costumes, although they don’t hurt.

“The kids are wondering what I’m going to be,” he said.

It seems extreme, but for School Administrative District 11’s two dozen bus drivers, engaging their charges is part of their daily routine, such as saying “good morning” when students get on the bus and telling them to have a good day when they leave. Along with parents and teachers, school bus drivers are one of the constants in the lives of students.

“We can make or break their day,” Charlotte King said. She’s been driving school buses in the district for more than three decades, and she’s now driving children of children that she once drove.

“You don’t realize how little you need to do to make a difference,” Charles Wilson said. He favors sharing inspirational messages, telling them that someone who graduates from college can earn seven times more than someone who doesn’t and that every day spent in school is one day fewer that they have to be there.

One driver, who declined to identify himself, makes treats to hand out to his charges. This year, it’s Tootsie Pops dressed up as a turkey.

Some of the drivers grew up in poverty, and they recognize it when they see it in the students they transport daily. They want to extend kindness to the students as kindness was extended to them.

This year, the drivers raised $250 to put toward buying turkeys for 200 families in the Gardiner area. When they found out that Hannaford Supermarkets had donated the turkeys, they were grateful they could put the money toward gifts and needed items for students at Christmas.

Their care for their students extends far past the holiday season.

“When you do this,” Mary May said, “you have to love it or you hate it. Some kids will sit right up front and talk your ear off. You realize they may not have anyone else to talk to and they need to talk to someone.”

And sometimes the care extends past childhood.

Laurie Wheeler has been driving the same route for 27 years.

“I love seeing my kids as grown-ups,” she said.

One of her students was a boy who needed heart surgery, she said. He asked if she would go with him on the day of the operation.

“The superintendent asked me why I was taking the day off,” she said. “I said I had promised him.”

Wheeler said when he was in recovery after the operation he was surprised she was still there.

“I told him I promised I would be,” she said. “He’s 37 now, and he still comes to my house with his fiancee and two kids.”

Mainers to be thankful for

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