Superintendent of Schools Joan Landers said that the people and buses from First Student Inc. and Van Pool Transportation have been wonderful as the weeks have gone by during the coronavirus shutdown, thanks to their participation in food distribution Monday through Friday for local students and families.
First Student delivers food to six locations throughout town. Someone from a family meets the bus and receives breakfast and lunches for their children at one of those six sites. Many of the school district’s staff help disperse the bags, and it is accomplished even though smiles are hidden by masks and the time is limited.
Then there are the families that have no way to get to those six distribution sites.
Van Pool Transportation works with the superintendent on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday in delivering food to students and their families who do not have a way to make it to the designated locations for distribution.
Plus, on Wednesdays, Heywood Healthcare’s Mary Gianetti comes with food, and Growing Places from Leominster provides fresh-grown vegetables for 85-90 families. That food is packed and delivered to student residences throughout the town by Van Pool. They even make sure the holidays are covered.
Landers calls Van Pool driver Bill Leger of Templeton “the guardian angel of families” because he is sweet to all as he packs and delivers food to homes.
Leger said that he stepped forward to drive the van as soon as Van Pool Transportation put out a notice. For the last several weeks Leger has shown up to Toy Town, packed up the van, and is usually done before lunch.
Leger said he does not do the work for money but does it because he loves the students.
“If I wasn’t driving Van Pool’s van, I would jump in my own truck to do it on my own gas,” he said.
Leger drives special needs students throughout the year, noting some days they have a really good time. He has been working for Van Pool Transportation for 11 years as of May.
Not long after Leger retired, his wife was leaving for work and turned around to ask him what he was going to do that day. After thinking a moment, he replied, “I don’t like retirement. I think I am going to look for a job.”
When he saw Van Pool Transportation vehicle drive by, he followed it back to the office, filled out an application and was hired.
Leger said there were difficult kids and tough routes, but added that Van Pool is the greatest company he has ever come across. He explained that any driver having a hard time with a student just calls in, and everyone in the office becomes focused on how to make it work.
Their motto is, ‘Whatever it takes,’” said Leger.
Van Pool Transportation President and CEO of Kevin Hinkamper and Westley Richters, chief operations officer, spoke of why Van Pool has stepped up to help distribute food and educational supplies to the district.
Hinkamper said that Van Pool is a special transportation vendor for many districts in Massachusetts.
“We serve many of the communities and towns, and have been serving them for over 30 years,” said Hinkamper.
He said that this is not the first time the company has helped the community in tough times.
“When the tornado hit in 2011, we responded by serving the community in the southern part of the state around Springfield, really pitching in and volunteering … doing whatever was needed to be done,” said Hinkamper. “We have done it in ice storms, and even the gas explosions up in Lawrence through one of our other companies. It is something we have practiced for quite some time.”
Richters said they began planning with the school districts knowing there were going to be some impacts.
“We reached out to all of our community partners and offered assistance in any way we could,” Richters explained. “We knew there would be a need for education materials to get to several of the students. We have plenty of vans, so we offered the help to our communities and several communities showed an interest.”
Van Pool Transportation has been organizing and working with the superintendent’s office delivering food and education materials such as books and laptops. It is using drivers who have already been serving these communities, so they know the 47-plus miles of back roads.
“They all offered, and they come each day ready and willing to make these deliveries,” said Richter.
Hinkamper said that one of the things he felt was important was learning the protocol to make sure that the employees and people they were serving were safe.
“That changes based on the need,” he said. “By the nature of the work we do, the drivers are very experienced and knowledgeable about the community. It just becomes part of a routine for us to adapt from transporting students to transporting meals.”
Richter said there has been a great response from communities. People have been helpful and excited about the services provided.
Hinkamper added that Van Pool Transportation will be able to supply help indefinitely.
“We are hoping that it (health crisis) doesn’t last much longer than what it is, but we have been working with our districts for over 30 years. We are a well-established company so we feel pretty strongly that we can support the community as long as the community needs supporting,” he said.
Landers said that those who are in need of food can call her at the superintendent’s office at 978-616-1452.
“I am there every day,” she said.
People can also email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. All they have to do is leave a phone number, and the superintendent will contact them.