The “Fairhope Walking School Bus,” the only program of its kind in the state of Alabama, is a bus without the bus. There’s a bus stop, a route, a driver, and students. It’s a true transportation option for children kindergarten through third-grade at Fairhope Elementary School. It’s got everything a school bus needs – just no bus. The Walking School Bus is the brainchild of Charlene Lee, but she’s the first one to say she never could have done this alone. Community is key. Harnessing the energy of a community, and then enhancing that energy by making that community stronger, healthier, and more vital, is what the Walking School Bus program is all about.

The first thing I notice when I walk into
Charlene Lee’s home office for our meeting to discuss her community work and the “Walking School Bus” project, is this striking, multi-colored painting. Lee explains that it was a gift from Nancy Raia (who could be the subject of a whole other story) and is called “Ripple Effect.” It could not be more aptly named,
as “ripple effect” describes Lee’s work to a T.

As soon as we sit down to chat, Lee, in her enthusiastic and heartfelt style, says, “I am meant,
on a soul level, to be doing the work I do! I’m so lucky, because that’s where my passion comes from.”

And passion is exactly what Charlene Lee exudes.

More than 20 years ago, Lee saw a community-
built park while she was visiting her sister in Buffalo,
N.Y., and was struck by the power of the concept.
She brought that concept home to Fairhope, and with diligence, collaboration, and a never-give-up attitude,
she spearheaded the community-built Fairhoper’s Community Park.

Even though so much time has passed, when
Lee talks about it now, the deep, touching, and lasting effects of that project still resonate with her. She says the experience of watching people feel so excited about something, working together, feeling empowered, and building something they could be proud of and invested in, moved her – even changed her.

An astonishing amount of time, research, training, team-building, and footwork – all in the effort to preserve and enhance their community – went into building Fairhoper’s Community Park. More of that same energy has gone into her current project, the “Walking School Bus.”

Lee says she grew up a “free-range” kid. Walking, running, being outside, playing – these were the things her days were made of, the things SHE was made of. Walking to school was fundamental, not “extra” or “special.” Surges in population, fear of child abduction (remember the milk cartons with pictures of missing children), and generally precarious routes almost made the days of walking to school disappear. The Walking School Bus is Lee’s dream of bringing them back – not as a special event, but as a viable choice parents can make for their children to get to and from school.

Every day that school is in session, rain or shine, hot or cold (except if there’s lightning) the Walking School Bus runs (or rather, walks). Each day, as many as 120 schoolchildren participate in this activity, and that’s not counting the multitude of parents, grandparents, siblings, and even dogs that join in the walk too.

When I first ask Lee about the Walking School Bus, she says, “You can’t really know about the walk unless you walk the walk. You have to experience it.” (True words, no matter what the subject.)

So, on January 4th, with outside temperatures registering in the low 20s, I take the “Bus” to school.
As instructed, I arrive at the Bus Stop, a well-designated area behind the library on School Street, at 7:05 a.m. Lee, along with the five teachers who regularly participate in this venture, also arrive.

The parent volunteers are already setting up the tables for registration. Some children are dropped off in the well-supervised “drop spot,” while other parents arrive with their children by their sides or running ahead to play with others. Laughter, play, enthusiasm – none of these are dampened by the cold weather! It is amazing to watch this unspoken orchestration take place – like a well-oiled, well-loved machine.

The children (K-third grade) are so independent, so empowered, so collaborative and enthusiastic. When it comes time to leave for school (7:20 a.m. on the nose), Lee says, “Who’s counting down today?” Immediately a child runs up to her and says, “Me!” Then without wavering, the child stands in front of everyone and shouts, “My name is Cullen Johnson! I’m in the third grade, and I’m going to count down in Spanish. Uno, dos, tres!”

During our interview, Lee, with a gleam in her eyes, tells me that the countdown has been an evolving process. In the beginning, she would blow the whistle and then count out, “one, two, three” to get the kids’ attention. Later, it dawned on her that this was another opportunity for the children to get involved (a key element to everything Lee does).

So she started blowing the whistle and appointing a “countdown kid” who would simply shout out, “one, two, three.” Then one day, a child surprisingly did the countdown in German! This spurred other kids to begin to research how to say “one, two, three,” in different languages. The countdown continued to evolve. Now the “Countdown Kid” stands next to Ms. Charlene, states his or her name, grade, chosen language for the countdown, and then counts out “one, two, three” –
in that language. 

Empowerment, enthusiasm, exploration, courage, pride – all this now goes into what the kids think of as just the daily countdown. It is powerful to watch.

After the countdown, everyone – kids and adults – shouts in unison, “Smart kids, smart walks. Let’s roll!” (Having been a gymnastics coach for 15 years, Lee knows that a good chant gets everyone revved up and promotes team unity.) And, without fuss or direction, the children organize themselves into an orderly line and begin the half-mile walk to Fairhope Elementary School. An untied shoelace calls for a dad to do a quick “pull-over” to tie the shoe – all part of the workings of the “Bus.”

At the designated drop-off spot close to the school, the non-student walkers say goodbye to the school-goers, and the teachers escort the school children the rest of the way into the school. It’s a poignant moment to witness this parting of ways – a brief glance into the hearts of these people. The “non-school goers who walk” embrace an amazing array of parents, grandparents, younger siblings, and family pets –
an eager, active, dedicated community of folks. The Walking School Bus is a community event – every day!

On our walk back up the hill to the library, I ask Lee how long she thinks she’ll continue to participate with the Walking School Bus. She says, “I’ve often wondered, will I ever get tired of it?” (Luckily, she hasn’t yet.) She explains, in a more contemplative tone, that she has two issues to work out before leaving would even be an option for her: She wants to know how to replicate this program at other schools, and she wants to make sure the program is financially stable.

In talking with Charlene Lee and walking this walk, what becomes obvious is this: THIS PROGRAM MATTERS! It makes a difference for these kids and families. The Walking School Bus is restoring one tiny bit of an innocent Americana we thought was gone for good. It’s building a friendly parent network; teaching good stewardship of resources (to parents and children); strengthening the trust between teachers and supporting school systems; and helping children develop confidence, safe walking practices, and familiarity with their neighborhoods and streets.

The “Walking School Bus” has expanded from once a year (“Walk Your Child to School Day”), to once a month, to a daily, viable school transportation option. And in Lee’s words, “It isn’t what you say that changes things. It’s what you DO on an everyday basis that effects true shifts in patterns.”

What was once a ripple, has grown into a wave, and if Charlene Lee has her way (which, given her passionate determination, seems to be more likely than not), this wave will continue to grow and build until it becomes the tide. The program will be replicated at Fairhope’s other schools, and in other cities as well. (Currently, Fairhope’s Walking School Bus is the only one in the state.)

I ask Charlene why she does this. To put it simply, she says, “It’s the one thing I can do that is real, that can affect parents and children, and thus our community,
in positive ways. It’s concrete.”

And then she sits back in her chair, becomes quietly reflective for a moment, then continues, “I had no idea…” She closes her eyes and smiles. The she adds softly, “It’s beautiful… just beautiful.”

This community has felt the ripple of Lee’s passion in the past, in the present, and will certainly continue to feel it in the future. “It’s not about me,” she says. “It’s about collaboration, teamwork, and community.
It won’t grow if it’s about me, so that just can’t be.”

I agree with you, Ms. Charlene. It’s no doubt that together we can do what we cannot do alone. It’s only when we realize the power of connection and community that we can harness the power to create a better place to live and a better way to live. However, having the perspective to see how this can be achieved – well, that takes a guide, a leader, a team captain.

Thank you, “Captain Lee,” for doing what you do to guide us toward the victory of a stronger, healthier community.

May the ripple become the wave. May the wave become the tide.

Augusta Kantra is a psychotherapist in private practice. She and her husband are yoga teachers and teacher trainers. They are the developers of CALM (Creating Awareness – Living Mindfully), a program that teaches mindfulness in daily living. She is participating in the inaugural Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Certification Program at UC Berkeley with Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach.