By Sherrie Norris
The rain on Friday, June 7, did nothing to dampen the spirits of 125 fourth-grade students, five teachers, several volunteers and the school superintendent from delivering random acts of kindness throughout Watauga County.
In fact, the “Love Bus” participants made 60 stops along their designated route as unsuspecting public servants, community leaders, business owners, medical staff and patients in various healthcare settings, individuals and many others were astonished by being handed a gift certificate, flowers, coins at the laundry, snacks and a plethora of other thoughtful gifts.
While the unique community outreach might still be the best kept secret around, it has grown by leaps and bounds since it’s humble beginning five years ago.
It all started in February 2014 when Corrie Freeman’s fourth-grade class began discussing how they could “change up” the way they spend Valentine’s Day.
“My students then proceeded to brainstorm — and from their ideas, the Love Bus was born” Freeman said.
The Love Bus outreach quickly grew to include all five fourth grade classes at Hardin Park, with current teachers Jessie Presnell, Wendy Lawrence, Grant Woltz and Meagan Lancaster joining Freeman in the effort.
This year, the Love Bus celebrated its fifth anniversary, required three buses, and had a huge impact upon the participating students, faculty, staff and those in their pathway on delivery day.
When asked about how recipients of the kindness acts are chosen, Freeman said, it’s all student-driven, everyone thinks about it through the school year and “strategic planning” begins to take shape about a month prior to setting it into action.
Who supplies all the goodies, we asked?
The teachers write grants, apply for scholarships and count on individual donations to help each year.
Participation in the recent St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Boone garnered added attention this year — and especially when the entry won $1,000 as a first place contender in the Best of Show category.
Teaching The Power Of Empathy And Appreciation
When asked about the school system’s support of the Love Bus, there was no hesitation in response.
“Dr. Scott Elliott, school superintendent, is one of our biggest supporters,” said Freeman. “Not only does he drive the bus every year, he also really believes in what we are doing.”
Elliott told High Country Press, “It just warms my heart and makes me so proud of our students and teachers to see the Love Bus spreading joy throughout the community. There is a lot to love about this kind of activity.”
First and foremost, Elliott stressed, “It teaches students the power of empathy and appreciation, especially for the hard working people who are often overlooked. Second, it is a great educational opportunity for the students as they learn to develop a budget, plan an itinerary, communicate with adults outside the school, and work together as a team. I would like for every student in our school system to have this kind of experience.”
Among Elliott’s favorite memories while driving the Love Bus, he shared, was at a gas station in town when the students surprised customers with free gas.
“One particular woman arrived at the gas pump and was visibly upset and irritated that the students were trying to get her attention. She obviously was having a difficult day, but as soon as she understood what the students were trying to do, she teared up and you could see the stress melt away. She asked if there was anything she could do to pay for the gas, and one student replied, ‘Maybe later you can find someone who is not having a good day and you can do something unexpected for them!’ “
Like others, Elliott said the highlight of every Love Bus trip is the visit to the Seby B. Jones Cancer Center.
“Students take in ‘celebration boxes’ to give away to patients as they complete their treatments. It’s a party in a box to take home to celebrate their recovery.”
The “party box” distributed at the cancer center has a special meaning for all involved, Freeman added.
“The idea came from the kids as a gift for people who may not have someone to celebrate with them that their chemo is over,” she described. “The box contains a book we have written (we write a new one every year), party horns, confetti, ‘fancy’ chocolates, motivational sayings and a button that says ‘I finished chemo.’ Handing those out is very special. The cancer center is very gracious to us and lets us come in and visit with the patients. It means a lot of all of us to have that opportunity and privilege.”
Among the various random acts, Elliott said, the students have left bags of quarters in the laundry mat, taken pet food to the Humane Society, paid for breakfast for everyone in line at a fast food restaurant, and even visited students at other schools to say hello and meet new friends. And that’s just the beginning.
“Unfortunately, a common reaction from adults is to be skeptical when these students are giving them a free gift or token of appreciation,” Elliott added. “They think there must be a catch — or that the students are trying to sell something. Maybe with more activities like the Love Bus, we will get to a point where kindness and love are the norm and not something to be skeptical of or surprised about.”
It is very important to Freeman and her fellow teachers, they said, for the public to know, it’s not about them. “We are not at all interested in any glory — we just want our kids to know that small acts of kindness go a long way! “
Experiencing the Gift of Giving
Jessica Kimbrough was first introduced to the Love Bus last year when her son, Miles, was in Freeman’s class.
“I was fortunate enough to travel around with the Love Bus and see first-hand what an impact this event has,” she said. “The fourth grade teachers give students the opportunity to open their hearts and spread kindness. With these opportunities, they are learning to transform the world. The Love Bus is a true gift that they provide to our community that I will be forever grateful.”
Another mother, Ginger Powell, is a huge fan on the Love Bus, she said. “It’s such a wonderful experience — a full-circle gift. “Sharing kindness often catches people off guard and hopefully changes their day for the better. “
Powell sees it as “’a moment in time when these kids get to really give —and experience the gift of giving.”
The fourth grade teachers at Hardin Park put a lot of effort into making this a day for the kids, Powell stressed. “And every year, it grows and seems better and better.”
Every year, too, she said, the kids grow from this experience and more people from the community want to be part of it.
Emily Rothrock, a parent and AIG Specialist at Hardin Park who has traveled with the Love Bus twice with her own children, had this to say: “I have watched Corrie Freeman bring the Love Bus to life. It began as a little dream in her heart — a desire to give back out of gratitude and her own battle with cancer — and it has evolved into a project that engages over 100 Hardin Park students every year, as well as parents, administrators, and community members.”
Rothrock said that on the 2015 trip, she watched students grasp that, though they were little, they could make big impacts in their community. There could do thing every day to encourage and support others.”
On the 2018 trip, Rothrock added, she was thrilled to see how much the project had expanded. “Four times as many students participated as had in 2015. While there were stops along the way that had become annual visits (ie: the cancer center), teachers and students had still managed to identify new businesses and individuals who had not been visited in the past. The Love Bus Project provides opportunities for generous service to one’s neighbors, and this spirit of service is modeled by and carried out with community leaders and peers. What a great life lesson!”
There’s really no way to ever measure the true impact of hundreds of children practicing the art of generous service among their neighbors every year, Rothrock concluded. “State testing can’t measure it, but we can see it. We see it in the hallways, in our homes and in our neighborhoods. What an amazing culture of love for others these teachers and students have created! I am so grateful.”
A Few Words From The Receiving End
Local photographers Jonathan and Bonnie Burton, who have “captured” many special moments for area families, described their studio visit from The Love Bus as “a joyful experience.”
“It means so much to be valued and appreciated. Those students are truly making a difference in the lives of people who work and live in the High Country. They made a difference in our lives (today.) We are lucky to work with so many amazing families and kids every day.”
“We can’t tell you how much it meant for us to receive this gift of love,” Bonnie added. “The camera mugs are so fun. With our tea and coffee each day, we’ll enjoy thinking about the Love Bus and the wonderful people at Hardin Park Elementary School and Watauga County Schools.”
We have since learned that, in turn, the Burtons provided a donation to help with future efforts of the Love Bus. In a thank you note, Bonnie wrote: “We know the kindness that you shower on others will make our community a better place for us all. May you be blessed for it and in your future endeavors.”
Tina Watson, owner and operator of Blue Ridge Diner in Deep Gap had just finished her lunch rush when the Love Bus pulled into her parking lot, taking her by surprise. Her gift? Handmade placemats for the tables with words of inspiration written thereon.
“I am forever grateful for this wonderful community we serve,” Watson said. “The love and gratitude that was put into making these placemats from the children will forever be etched in my heart! I am honored that Blue Ridge Diner was chosen to receive these specials gifts. My goal in life is not only serving food to my wonderful customers , it is also making memories with everyone I come in contact with.” To the children, she said, “Thank you so much for choosing us. I love this wonderful, beautiful county.”
For more information about the Love Bus and how you can contribute to next year’s project, contact Corrie Freeman at Hardin Park Elementary School by calling (828) 264-8481 or emailing [email protected].