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November 08, 2010  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

Many Faces Welcome Behind the Wheel

An innovative program helps immigrants in northern Virginia work toward becoming bus drivers for Fairfax County Public Schools. Top-tier applicants to the program receive 16 weeks of instruction to strengthen their English speaking skills and prepare them for the commercial driver’s license test.

by Wendy LeBolt


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Pictured are graduates of the 2010 Grace Ministries Commercial Driver’s License/English for Speakers of Other Languages Training Program, along with several instructors and program organizers.

Pictured are graduates of the 2010 Grace Ministries Commercial Driver’s License/English for Speakers of Other Languages Training Program, along with several instructors and program organizers.

School bus drivers: Frequently, they’re a face without a name, but they are also the unsung heroes of fall. Parents wait anxiously to see them as they stand at school bus stops. They are the people to whom parents will trust their most prized possession — their children.

I was invited to meet 10 aspiring bus drivers who were selected for the Grace Ministries Commercial Driver’s License (CDL)/English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) Training Program. The program welcomes speakers of other languages who dream of earning their CDLs and driving a bus for our local school system, Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) in Falls Church, Va.

The candidates are a diverse bunch — men and women from different countries and continents. Now, they laugh and joke with each other. Eight months ago, they were strangers. Most were unemployed or underemployed, without benefits and with intermediate English skills.

The life stories that brought these people together are as diverse as they are: a restaurant that closed, a wife who needs health insurance, a layoff, a co-worker’s recommendation, children who need to be with their mother and a single parent of teenagers. Each was seeking some way to better provide for his or her loved ones.

Program represents opportunity for trainees
The candidates represent the top 10 percent of applicants to the CDL/ESOL training program. At the culmination of the program, they will sit together in support of each other, ready to begin new careers in a new language. Upon graduation and passing the on-the-road testing, each candidate is guaranteed employment with benefits through the county.

Here, trainees attend a class to strengthen their English speaking skills.

“Which do you think is more important to them, the pay or the benefits?” I ask Vivian Jalali, CDL coordinator at Floris United Methodist Church, which hosts the class for the ESOL training and CDL instruction. She thinks for a moment before setting me straight. “Neither. It’s the opportunity,” she says.

Dean Tisdadt, chief operating officer of FCPS, also feels that graduation day and the program overall represent opportunity. The CDL/ESOL program represents the “best of government” in the “connection of public and private sector,” he says.

Tisdadt adds that the county intends to continue supporting the program, the budget not withstanding, because what it’s accomplishing is clear: It provides the dedicated, capable bus drivers he needs while making a difference in the lives of individuals and families in the community.

How it works
Grace Ministries Executive Director the Rev. Martha Real explains who and what is involved in administering this program.

FCPS’ transportation services, human resources and adult community education departments partner with SkillSource and Grace Ministries to offer the program to immigrants in northern Virginia.

They work together to identify, finance and train qualified candidates. Floris United Methodist Church hosts the class, which meets weekdays from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. (between bus runs for the candidates who are employed as bus attendants during the program) for 16 weeks. Three days each week are designated to ESOL training, and two days are designated to CDL instruction.

Following successful completion of the program and behind-the-wheel training, the candidates take a test to receive their CDLs. If they pass, they become FCPS bus drivers in the fall. If they don’t pass the CDL test, they can continue to work as bus attendants.

A day of appreciation, celebration
On the day of graduation from the program, many of the students stood to address the graduation audience.

Here, trainees learn about bus tires. They are also taught about the components of a bus during the program.

Bahia, a young mother from Morocco, said, “You’ve given me a chance to be what I’ve always wanted and to be what my family needs.”

Bahia was a teacher before she immigrated to the U.S. with her husband. She became an American citizen last year. She was determined to have a job where she could always have her children with her. She wrote her thanks to the program sponsors, signing it “Future bus driver, Bahia.”

Other students added their experiences: Mohammed had “no words” to express the changes he had felt and seen, but he said they were a great memory engraved in his heart. “It is an experience I will share with my children and my grandchildren,” he added.

Youngki Hong (“call me Young”), a jovial Korean student, said, “By God’s grace I was chosen” for the program. He was thankful for meeting his fellow students from different countries and different religions and for being able to learn from them.

On graduation day, everyone celebrated and thanks abounded. I am glad to have had the opportunity to share a bit of time with this class and to offer them my thanks. As a mother with children who ride the bus, I told them honestly, “The happy kid who is delivered to school is a joy to her teachers, and the happy kid who is delivered home is a joy to me.”

They smiled, knowing that what they do makes a difference for others, just as the class has made a difference for them. Everybody wins.

Wendy LeBolt learned of the Grace Ministries CDL/ESOL Training Program through Floris United Methodist Church, which she attends. LeBolt is founder of Fit2Finish LLC, which provides innovative, fun and effective training for healthy performance to youth sports teams in the mid-Atlantic region. For more information about the Grace Ministries CDL/ESOL Training Program, contact Martha Real at mreal@florisumc.org.


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