TOPSHAM — Don Sanders started his Bus Book Bags program in October 2014 as a way to boost reading by students he drove to and from school.
The 10-book project has now spread to 90 books and other buses, and expanded from a local effort to a widely praised initiative, and has earned Sanders the Giraffe Award from the Maine Children’s Alliance.
Sanders, who spent 24 years in the Navy, has driven buses the past 15 years for School Administrative District 75. His regular routes include the Williams Cove Elementary School and Mt. Ararat High and Middle schools.
His Bus Book Bags project is now a joint effort between School Administrative District 75 and the Topsham Public Library. The program’s success has come not just from encouraging children to read, but also through developing friendships between the younger, elementary-age students and the older ones who read to them.
When kindergartners and first-graders first climb onto the bus, they are a little “unsettled,” Sanders said in an interview last February. “So I try to think of some way to keep them engaged in something.”
It has paid off, not just in connections between children of different ages, but also with a decline in bad behavior on the bus.
“It’s going strong,” Sanders said Jan. 4, noting that he has received many calls from other school districts and libraries in Maine and outside the state.
“I’ve been contacted by people from Wisconsin and Kansas and Colorado, and just all over,” he said. “Other people who want to try to implement the program in their buses, too.”
Earning the Giraffe Award has helped get the word out across the state, too.
“It promotes the program,” Sanders said. “I’ve also drawn in more inquiries because of that, and that’s a good thing.”
The award is given for those who “stick out their neck” for Maine youth and families, according to a profile of Sanders posted by the Maine Children’s Alliance.
Sanders, who won in the Out of the Box category, “truly exemplifies what it means to be a Giraffe Award Winner,” the profile states. “He identified an opportunity to make a difference and went above and beyond his job description.”
Seeing the other award winners among six categories at an Oct. 27 awards ceremony, Sanders said, “I was very enlightened and very impressed.
“I said, ‘me?” he added with a laugh. “‘What am I doing here?’ It just seemed like super-powered people that were there getting awards.”
But for the kids who’ve benefited from his program, Sanders may be a bit of a superhero himself.
Don Sanders, a bus driver for School Administrative District 75 for 15 years, received the Giraffe Award from the Maine Children’s Alliance for implementing the “Bus Book Bags” program. He is shown with Mariah Sewall, a children’s librarian at Topsham Public Library, which has worked with SAD 75 schools and Sanders on the literacy-promoting effort.