GREAT FALLS - Every morning, you wake up and get your child ready for school, a place where a world of opportunities awaits.
You may think of the teachers, the principal, or the coaches. However, as you walk to the bus stop, there is a face that greets you and your child with a smile.
Joanne Bernard — who starts her day at 5:45 a.m. — has been a school bus driver for nearly ten years at Big Sky Bus Lines in Great Falls.
While mornings aren't the most desirable shift, it doesn't seem to have an impact on Joanne.
“I’m a morning person, so it’s easier for me to get up in the morning," she said. "I enjoy getting my routes done, so by 9 o’clock, I have time to do other things.”
Joanne starts her route near Fox Farm Road, driving the kids to North Middle School and CMR High School. She also takes care of driving the special needs kids to their destination.
“You have to enjoy the kids first, and I do enjoy the kids a lot," Joanne explained. "They make my day, and I enjoy driving. I was a farmer before, so I enjoy doing a lot of traveling and being out in the country.”
Big Sky Bus Lines — which is contracted by the Great Falls Public Schools system — is no stranger to the national bus driver shortage. At the start of the new school year, they were short 15 drivers.
The goal for the bus routes during this school year is to rotate who gets picked up from which school so there are enough drivers to cover as many children as possible.
"What we have to do, is use a bus driver for more than one route," Big Sky Bus Lines manager Barbie Stucker stated. "She came back after her route, switched buses and got into another bus into that second route, so a lot of these drivers are doing more than one route, and that just makes their day a little longer.”
Big Sky Bus Lines previously paid its drivers $15.50 per hour, but due to contract negotiations from the public school system, they have raised wages to $19.00 per hour.
Despite some challenges that go along with the job, Joanne says it's a job that anyone can enjoy.
"I don’t think you have to be a total people person," she noted. "I know there are some of us that are not. You definitely have to enjoy being around people for a while and you also have to persevere under certain circumstances if your kids are rowdy. You have to know how to handle them. I think that’s probably the most difficult part. Driving in the bad weather can be difficult also, but you’ll learn how to do that.”
If you are interested in becoming a driver, click here to visit the Big Sky Bus Lines website.