To any parent, the act of putting their young child on a bus for the first time stirs a whirlwind of thoughts and emotions. For the families of 175 preschoolers and school age students served by The Arc of Livingston-Wyoming, those feelings are only intensified by the child’s special needs.
“There is literally no cargo that is more precious than an 18 month old boy or girl with a disability,” Arc Director of Transportation John Prospero says. “Nobody understands that fact more fully than Penny. Penny is very often the first face that a parent sees before their child’s transportation journey with The Arc begins, and for that our agency is enormously fortunate.”
“Penny” is Penny Cartwright, Transportation Safety Manager for The Arc, and recipient of the 2018 New York State School Bus Driver Instructor of the Year Award. Presented to Penny in Albany this July by the New York State Education Department, the award recognizes her significant contributions to New York’s school transportation safety program.
In her position with The Arc, Penny oversees the training needs of a staff of 80 drivers and aides. Since 2010, the Transportation department has yielded an 80 percent reduction in its accident rate. But for Penny, impressive numbers are only part of a more person centered story.
“Penny can turn concern into confidence for riders and their caregivers,” says Arc Executive Director Martin Miskell. “She takes it upon herself to go to the home of every new student who uses any type of special seat or safety vest.”
Certified Child and Safety Seat Technician is among a long list of Penny’s accreditations and qualifications. And while the School Bus Driver Instructor of the Year Award celebrates her contributions to child safety, her work in The Arc Transportation Program benefits people of all ages. As part of the area’s largest not-for-profit organization that supports individuals with disabilities and their families, the program transports hundreds of adults and children to the tune of 345,000 trips per year, which totals about 2.7 million miles.
Penny manages all of The Arc’s safety training for the diverse driver team that transports children and adults to “the highest possible standards, regardless of the route they are driving,” as John puts it. Working with a small staff of department trainers, she implements a safety program that covers the spectrum of road safety, from defensive driving to complex emergency evacuations of wheelchair users and other passengers.
Penny is a source of expertise for families in all areas of transportation safety, so it’s hard to believe that she had no transportation experience when she joined The Arc as a driver in 1994. Prior to that, she had worked in the Wayland-Cohocton School District, in the library and as a teacher’s aide near her home in Springwater.
“When I first came to The Arc, I knew nothing about disabilities, but as time went by, I grew to love the environment,” Penny says. “When I was transporting people, I always referred to them as my family. As soon as they got on the bus, they were mine.”
With encouragement from her Program Director, Penny made the successful transition from the road into her first supervisory position in 2006 – although she still loves to drive, and does so to this day when needed.
“John was a big part of me going from being a bus driver to Training Supervisor,” she says. “Honestly, I think that he had more faith in me than I had in myself. I mean, I was a bus driver. I got into an office, and started looking around and asking, ‘Okay, now why did I take this position again?’.”
Promoted to Transportation Safety Manager in 2010, Penny is now active with a number of professional organizations that enhance transportation safety locally and statewide, such as the New York Association for Pupil Transportation, the Rochester Area Transportation Supervisors Association, and Genesee Valley Educational Partnership. She brings the same “person first” approach to those groups that she stresses to each new driver hired by The Arc.
“I’ve had experienced truck drivers come in to become bus drivers, and say, ‘I’ve driven a big rig, and I know how to drive’,” she says. “To them, I explain that the cargo they’re used to hauling isn’t anywhere near as important as the cargo you’re transporting now. These people cannot be replaced.”
The Arc’s safety standards have never been more stringent than under Penny’s guidance. Rarely do serious accidents occur, but when they do, passengers and drivers are protected to the highest degree. Such was the case one fateful day in May of 2015, when an agency bus carrying people with developmental disabilities was rammed and knocked on its side by a second vehicle on Route 20A near Interstate 390 in Geneseo.
“I went to the hospital that night,” Penny recalls. “I visited the driver in his room, and he said, ‘I did everything the way I was supposed to do it.’ And the bus aide said, ‘I’m just glad that he hooked the wheelchair up the way that he did.’ When you hear that, you know that they’re thinking about safety.”
“I honestly feel that if things had not been done the way that they were that day, we would have had fatalities,” Penny adds.
The 13 people onboard are well today in large part because of the safety measures championed by Penny. For the award winning bus driver instructor, it’s a poignant example of their importance – and an emotional reminder of the reason that she comes to work every day.
“The most satisfying part about my job is knowing that, when another day has gone by, everyone is safe; none of the people we’ve transported and none of I drivers have been hurt,” she says.