The new falcon herald logo.
Feature Articles

Bus driver delivers happiness throughout Falcon

His legal name is Ralph James Berry, Jr., but most people know him as RJ, the school bus driver extraordinaire and organizer of charitable programs like the Santaís Toy Express and the Back to School boxes. Berry spent his childhood in his birthplace of Whittier, California ñ- just outside of Los Angeles ó and graduated from Pioneer High School in 1966. He attended junior college for a year, but decided to join his father at the Chrysler assembly plant in Los Angeles. ìI was making pretty good money for a kid who was 18,î he said. ìBut then I got my draft notice.îBerry joined the United States Army in 1968, and spent six months training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, before heading to Vietnam. He was assigned as a cook in the officersí mess hall. ìYou go to cook school, and you learn how to cook,î he said. ìI made some pretty green liver and some pretty ugly eggs in the beginning, but I got pretty good.î In 1970, Berry returned to Los Angeles to work for Chrysler. After six months, he switched directions and applied for a manager position at Robert Hall Clothes in Los Angeles. For the next five years, Berry served in managerial positions for Robert Hall Clothes in Phoenix and throughout southern California.In 1975, the company closed and Berry applied for a job with Holly Stores, a subsidiary of Kmart. Berry first managed a store in Pleasant Hill, California, and a year later, transferred to a store in Monrovia, California. In 1977, he returned to Phoenix, where he managed two of the largest stores out of 1,000 Kmart stores.In 1982, Berry moved to Colorado Springs after the company promoted him to district manager. In 1996, the company downsized and Berry became the store manager for the Kmart in the Chapel Hills Mall. Three years later, after 25 years as a manager in the apparel business, Berry looked at other career options. ìI took about six months off and did some research on what I might want to do,î he said. ìI found school bus driving seemed like a good thing to do. I like kids. You donít want to be a school bus driver, if you donít like kids.î In 2000, Falcon School District 49 hired Berry.After a couple of years as a bus driver, the transportation director suggested that Berry become a trainer. Starting out part-time, he eventually became a full-time trainer and also a commercial driver trainer for the state of Colorado. After several years training other drivers, he returned to driving a school bus for the next 10 years.In 2010, Berry began driving a bus for special needs students. At the time, the district had been cutting some services. ìThey were going to make a decision on whether or not to keep regular busing,î he said. ìSpecial needsí busing is required by law. Whether we would have regular ed busing or not, special needs kids would always be bused. After I started driving special needs Ö once I got into it, then I fell in love with those kids, too.îBerryís desire to help kids in the Falcon area started his first year on the job. Berry recalled that during the Christmas season the Kmart store where he worked invited kids to the store to have breakfast with Santa. A select number of kids also received money to shop in the store to buy presents. Berry took that idea and added a few of his own like incorporating D 49 buses to pick up the kids and bring them to the D 49 barn for breakfast with Santa. Berry shared his plan with the districtís transportation director, and she liked the idea. ìAnd I said, ëGood because I already have it planned,íî he said.The first year of the event ó 2001 ó included 15 children, ages 4 to 8 years old, from a few of the districtís elementary schools. The program quickly grew, covering more schools within the district. In 2002, Berry decided to expand it to ì49 in District 49.î ìWhat it really ends up being is 49, 50, 51 or 52 (kids), depending how many there is in need in that age group,î he said.Berry sends information out to the schools in September, and requests a list of students who would be appropriate for the program. Teachers and administrators base their selections on a number of situations, from low-income families to those who have had special circumstances like a house fire to some kids with a deployed parent or parents. Berry calls the parents of each child to get their permission for participation in Santaís Toy Express. Buses pick up the children from their homes and take them to the D 49 bus barn, where 20 ROTC students from Falcon High School are waiting to serve breakfast to the kids and Santa, who arrives in one of the Falcon Fire Protection District fire engines. ìOh, you should just see the kidsí faces light up when they see Santa on this big fire engine,î Berry said.After breakfast, each child is paired with a sponsor from Schriever Air Force Base. The children and their sponsors board the buses, along with Santa, Mrs. Claus and their elves and head to the Falcon Walmart to shop for Christmas gifts for their family. ìWe have 3 or 4 year olds who have never had $40 in their life,î Berry said. ìAnd they are getting a chance to shop for their families.î After 30 or 40 minutes, the group returns to the bus barn, and the ROTC students wrap their gifts. The transportation department also has other activities for the kids such as a magician, face painting, a movie, making ornaments and greeting cards and visiting with Santa and Mrs. Claus. Before they head home, each child receive $20-plus worth of presents, a stocking (each one decorated by the bus drivers) filled with goodies, a coat, a handmade scarf and hat, gloves, a backpack, along with the gifts they purchased for their families. ìI never thought I would do something like this,î Berry said. ìBut it is so rewarding it makes you want to do it again.îHe said the event costs between $5,000 and $6,000. Financing the event can be challenging, but Berry has found several local sponsors: Walmart, Farmers State Bank, The State Bank and Dollar Tree are among them. Berry also puts on various fundraisers throughout the year.ìOver the 14 years, we have raised around $75,000 for the families in Falcon School District,î he said. Berry said every donation, no matter how large or small, always makes a difference. ìAll donations go 100 percent into this program,î he said.In addition to the Santaís Toy Express, Berry also started a Back to School program three years ago to help area schools purchase additional school supplies. This year, the transportation department received a donation of $1,500 worth of supplies. Berry said the transportation department has handed out a box to every school in the district at least once, and five or six schools have received a second box. ìSome of these kids come to school without any school supplies,î he said. ìThis program helps those kids out.îAlthough both events were Berryís ideas, he dismissed taking the credit. ìIt sounds like my program, but itís really not,î he said. ìThere are so many people behind the scenes that really help make this event so special for these kids ó not just one person.îìWhen you are younger, you are just trying to survive,î Berry said. ìBut as you get older, at least for me, the feeling was maybe it is time that I give back.îIn his spare time, Berry enjoys spending time with his fiancÈ, Mary. They camp, ride ATVs and travel throughout the U.S. and abroad.

StratusIQ Fiber Internet Falcon Advertisement

Current Weather

Weather Cams by StratusIQ

Search Advertisers