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Riding with the volunteers feeding Dawson County students
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Dawson County Schools bus drivers hand out meals to students on March 18 - photo by Erica Schmidt

Even though Dawson County Schools are canceled for the foreseeable future, at 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday morning, school buses started out on their normal routes from schools throughout the county.

But instead of empty buses driving their routes to pick up students, these buses were full, seats crowded with coolers and boxes crammed with hamburgers, sausage biscuits, milk, juice, fresh fruit and vegetables. School staff and volunteers were the buses only passengers, all united in their mission to keep students happy, fed and healthy.

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Dawson County School students carry their meals home from the bus stop on March 18 - photo by Erica Schmidt

With schools closed for coronavirus precautions, the Dawson County school system has implemented a school bus meal delivery system in order to bring school lunches to students who will be at home full-time until schools reopen.

Delivery routes consist of 19 school buses, each running their normal routes. Under normal operations, each school bus runs the same route twice a day, once by an elementary school driver for the elementary age students and then again by a middle or high school driver for students on the same route.

For the sake of meal delivery, both the elementary driver and the high school driver ride the route together and deliver to all age groups at the same time, according to Tony Wooten, safe schools coordinator for Dawson County Schools.

“We have two bus drivers on each bus, both of whom know the route well,” Wooten said. “And they deliver meals to all the children on the route, from babies to age 18.”

In addition to the two bus drivers, volunteers also ride the routes to help with meal distribution.

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Bus drivers Melinda Marshall and Beverly Gaydon assemble meals on the way to deliver them to local school children - photo by Erica Schmidt

“We need as many volunteers as possible,” Wooten said. “People might not volunteer because they don’t know what to expect, but our goal is simple — we’re trying to keep our kids fed and safe.”

Scott Sorrells is a high school bus driver for Dawson County Schools. He and Beverly Gaydon, his elementary school route partner, rode their bus route on Wednesday handing out meals to any students at the stops.

 “We recognize the kids on the route because they all either ride my bus or Scott’s,” Gaydon said.

Children, excited to see the bus pull up, ran up to the stop to wait, meeting the school bus with smiles and laughter. Parents walked with the younger children, all happy to see the bus arrive.

Many children in the county depend on school meals for food each day, so the bags of food, which contain not only lunch for that day, but also breakfast for the next day, are extremely welcome.

“School meals may be the only meals some students get,” Gaydon said. “And even for parents that can afford food for three meals a day, some may not be able to get food from the grocery stores right now.”

In three hours, the workers gave nearly 180 meals.

“It’s hard work,” substitute bus driver Melinda Marshall said, “but I don’t mind working hard since it’s for a good cause.”

During the delivery routes, bus drivers and volunteers are tasked with keeping an eye out for anything that might seem out of the ordinary.

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Bus driver Scott Sorrells greets local children at their bus stop during the meal delivery route on March 18 - photo by Erica Schmidt

“Be on the lookout for any children that may look sick, anything like that,” Wooten said in a briefing to the group of volunteers. “If you see something that alerts you, let us know.”

Tuesday, March 17 was the first day of the meal delivery routes being in operation, and together the school workers and volunteers prepared and delivered 1,410 meals.

“I don’t know anybody else that’s fed over 1400 kids in about 5 hours before,” Wooten said. “We have seven school kitchens all cooking meals at once and 19 buses delivering.”

The meals are available to any student, regardless of whether or not he or she usually rides the bus. As long as the students are at the bus stop, they will receive a meal.

For students that don’t have a bus route, such as preschool-aged children who haven’t been assigned a bus route yet, parents have been calling in to the Board of Education and the Dawson County Fire Department or Dawson County Sheriff’s Office have been assisting with special deliveries.

“The fire department has graciously helped with deliveries and has people out at each station helping load and unload the buses,” Wooten said.

Dawson County Fire Chief Danny Thompson said that the implementation of the meal delivery system will make a lasting impact on the local community.

“15 to 20 years from now we’re going to look back on this and learn a lot from it,” Thompson said. “This has never been done in the history of Dawson County.”

At the end of the day, all of the bus drivers and volunteers say are glad they can be a part of the meal delivery, according to Gaydon.

“I’m just glad that we as a community can come together to serve these kids,” Gaydon said.