TOPSHAM — Don Sanders said he feels satisfied as he glances into the rearview mirror at the first few rows of seats in his school bus, watching the faces of children light up as they crack open a new book.
Those books are provided through the Bus Book Bags program, which the Topsham resident started in October 2014 as a way to boost reading among his young passengers in School Administrative District 75.
The effort gained attention across the country and several honors, the latest of which is the Topsham Public Library’s annual Sarah Whitten Community Award, to be presented Feb. 9.
“It was pretty awesome,” Sanders said in an interview Monday after learning he’d receive the award. “I definitely didn’t expect it.”
The Bus Book Bags project started with 10 books, culled first from his home, then from the home of Williams Cone Elementary School Principal Randa Rineer after Sanders mentioned the initiative to her. Demand from students eventually led to books being added from the school library.
Not only were the books keeping the younger students quiet and well behaved, but it also forged bonds with the older ones, who would sit with the children and read to them.
“That ‘s what it’s all about,” said Sanders, who has been driving 17 years after spending 24 years in the U.S. Navy. “Getting people to make new friends outside their peer group. They don’t even read books sometimes; they’ll come down and just start talking with people. That’s great.”
Describing the mentoring nature of the program, the father of two and grandfather of four explained, “They start in the elementary school, and when they get to the middle school, that’s a pretty scary thing. (But) they already know kids that are there. … And the same way jumping into high school.”
The program’s first two successful weeks made it clear it should expand to include other Williams Cone bus drivers, which meant 40 books were needed. Since the school couldn’t provide them all, Sanders, a regular user of the Topsham Public Library, turned to the children’s librarian, Mariah Sewall, for more supplies.
Library staff created the canvas bags that hang on the first two rows of bus seats.
The Sarah Whitten Award was established in 2015 to recognize a person, group or business for making a major contribution to the library and general community.
“Don is a perfect recipient for this award,” according to a Jan. 6 library press release. “He identified a way in which he could enrich the lives of the kids on his bus and took a proactive approach in making it happen, using his connections in the community.”
The library added that it “is delighted to add to Don’s growing list of accolades for his innovative approach in transforming our community. He took the ordinary and made it extraordinary. He engaged students in learning, connected them to each other, and made his bus a whole lot quieter, too!”
Every eight weeks Sewall adds new books, which Sanders circulates and redistributes each week on the bus fleet.
“Things just kept going up and up and up,” Sanders said, noting that the program now reaches more than 1,000 students of all ages, or two-thirds of the 30 buses in SAD 75.
While his goal has always been 100 percent outreach, Sanders emphasized it depends on other bus drivers participating in the program.
“If the drivers don’t want the books on their bus, they don’t put them on,” Sanders said. “… As the years have gone by, it’s more and more and more. But I know there’s some that just won’t do it.”
Which is a shame, he continued, because “from what I’ve seen, and what I’ve heard from all the other drivers, it’s A-No. 1.”
Accolades received by Sanders and the Bus Book Bags program include the 2016 Joan McGovern Education Support Professional Award from the Maine Education Association and a 2015 Giraffe Award from the Maine Children’s Alliance.
Sanders enjoys his time in the limelight – after all, it only serves to get the word out about his program. He’s received calls from schools in Oregon, Kansas and Minnesota about launching similar initiatives in those states.
“That’s what’s good about getting the recognitions, because it does put it out everywhere,” he said.
But it all starts in those first two bus rows.
“I have the mirror here so I can see everybody,” he said, glancing up at his bus’s rear reflector. “And it’s all happening within the first three seats. They’ll be sitting there reading, and you’ll see one of them go” – he gasped in mock shock – “‘look at that!’
“It brings a smile to my face when I see that stuff.”
Don Sanders, a bus driver for School Administrative District 75, launched the Bus Book Bags program in 2014. He is the recipient of the Topsham Public Library’s annual Sarah Whitten Community Award.