BEULAH — You’ll get where you need to be — but locals know the extra miles Benzie Bus’s drivers are willing to go.
Driver Sandra Culbertson might pick up a small neighborhood’s worth of food bank supplies, or take a quick detour to collect a regular’s waiting prescription.
For Scott Powell, it can be delivering handmade masks to nursing homes or at-risk households.
“It’s kinda in my blood — I like helping other people,” said Powell, who has been with Benzie Bus for nearly 13 years.
The smiles and greetings passengers offer make Powell’s days, and the fear still clutching the hearts of immune-compromised residents urges him to reach the bus stop on time each morning.
“You pretty much learn the community (through) the people you pick up on a regular basis,” said Powell, who hailed colleagues, fellow drivers and administrators for their sense of teamwork and kind treatment. “It’s just good to help one another.”
The public transportation depot, which operates in Benzie County, first stood up to meet COVID-19 in the spring. Under Executive Director Bill Kennis’ lead, they’ve remained stalwart in making those drives, offering a smile to at-risk regulars and cheery greetings to younger riders — who seem to grow into adults before Powell’s eyes.
Benzie Bus has organized prescription delivery services, drop-offs of food bank supplies, deliveries of handmade masks and laundry pick-ups. Plain ‘ol transportation, too, makes the list.
The past 10 months have seen hundreds of those deliveries, Kennis said, and the services are available to any Benzie County resident who makes a call.
Every rider who boards the buses does so for free, he added.
Kennis insists the honors belong to his drivers, who risk their lives to bolster those of fellow community members.
Keeping them safe is Kennis’ biggest concern, he said.
Since early days of social distancing, limited rider totals and mask-wearing, Benzie Bus has stepped up protocols, rigging a plastic barrier around the driver’s front-of-bus space.
Delivery hand-offs are done with social distance and caution in mind, Kennis added, and buses are cleaned regularly.
The further measures were welcomed by drivers, and it was enough for Culbertson — she said unease and hesitation have had little room in her heart this year. She declined Benzie Bus’ offers of voluntary furlough for those uncomfortable amid COVID-19.
She wanted to stay on, and through the entirety of the pandemic so far, she has.
“You’re helping somebody who really needs it,” Culbertson said. “That’s all.”
Drivers’ efforts don’t pass unnoticed — by riders or their community.
“I’m partial, but I’m a big fan of the Benzie Bus in many ways — of their staff, of their organization, of the community, because it’s just so supportive,” said Josh Stoltz, executive director of Grow Benzie and former Benzie Bus board chair. “It just shows how big the staff’s hearts are when you encounter a situation like COVID and they step up and are willing to be on the front lines to help their riders.”
Culbertson, who worked at Lowe’s before retiring, was encouraged to apply for her part-time role by a friend-turned-coworker.
Powell did for the road time — the buses, like his first car, then boat, then motorcycle, called to him.
“I drive a boat, I drive a motorcycle. If I had a pilot’s license, I’d probably be in the air,” Powell, 60, said with a chuckle.
Powell spent 20 years in hospitality — a stint that at one point saw him owning a hotel and restaurant — before making the shift to his bus-driving passion.
It gives him something to do, Powell said, and offers a reminder of easier, more normal times.
For Powell and Culbertson, the highlights of the day have shifted — now, lending a friendly hand and sharing jokes with the regulars are latest favorites.
“It’s the best place in the whole world to work,” Culbertson said. “You’re all kinda working together, you know?
“You (and other drivers) all know that everyone is out there to help the people in Benzie County.”
Kennis has seen transits across Michigan build their own system of helping hands, and is delighted at the spread and the different perspectives involved.
It reminds Kennis and his crew, at the end of the day, to keep the wheels going ‘round and ‘round, day after day.
“It’s a stewardship, a (sense of) duty that we feel,” Kennis said. “We just are fortunate to have great workers that love what they do and feel that they’re giving back to the community.
“It’s rewarding that we can make a difference.”