The transporter: Her training focuses on special-needs kids
Most people know the school-bus routine well: The big yellow vehicle stops, kids bound up the stairs and find a seat, then it's off to the next stop within seconds.
Mary Waters drives some of River Falls' physically and mentally challenged students to and from school. She attended training Oct. 25 and 26 to gain more expertise about transporting them.
She said, "It's one of the best classes I've ever been to."
The class title is a mouthful: "Safe Travel for all Children: Transporting Children with Special Health Care Needs."
Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota hosted the course, which was introduced nationally by the Riley Hospital for Children.
Indianapolis-based Riley, explains Waters, is adjacent to the National Center for the Safe Transportation of Children with Special Health Care Needs. Indiana University School of Medicine established the center in 2004 to "address the unique challenges associated with transporting children with disabilities."
Waters earned her certification in 2003 as a Child Passenger Technician. To keep that certification, she must gain continuing education credits at least every two years.
She says the "very specialized" recent class earns her credits toward her certification.
Waters attended for two days, passed a written test and performed hands-on tests using car seats and small-child mannequins.
"Both had a cast on their leg," she explained, "and you have to be able to load them in (correctly, safely)."
The training covered many topics from an array of problems that premature babies may have to issues that would be unique to a child with cerebral palsy.
Waters said the course covered tips, for example, on transporting children with shunts, autism, a wheelchair, feeding tubes, Down's syndrome, brittle bones, a cast, outbursts, and behavior problems.
Waters says drivers transporting a sound-sensitive autistic child must be highly aware of their surroundings.
"Repetitive behaviors are highly important to them," she said.
The child-transport specialist said she learned more about securing wheelchairs properly to the bus by seeking the strongest, welded parts for securing a chair.
Waters said she also got further instruction on attaching different seatbelts, as well as caring for special-needs patients in an ambulance.
Waters is a longtime EMT with the River Falls Ambulance Service. Each of the vehicles carries a child-safety seat.
She said the course also taught her about several national organizations that help people with disabilities, which she can pass along to the parents of kids who are mentally or physically challenged.
When she learns she'll be driving someone new, she typically visits their house to meet them and their parents and learn about their needs ahead of time.
The bus driver values the recent training in a specialty for which demand grows steadily.
For example, when Waters began driving special-needs children, the school district had one van to do the job. Now, there are three school buses equipped to accommodate students' special needs.
According to RFSD's recent state report cards, it educates some 45 children with special needs. Water said she met someone at the training from a Minnesota school district that transports 200 special-needs kids.
Waters said the "Safe Travel" course relates to her work and sounded like a good fit, so she asked for the time off to attend it.
Waters has been driving special-needs kids to school for 13 years and has been driving a school bus, off and on, for a total of 20 years. She also offers free car-seat inspections for any age or size, including those for special-needs kids.
She usually finds a little something that can be better during four of every five car-seat inspections. She checks to be sure they are secured properly, sized correctly and not a recalled product.
Occasionally she organizes a car-seat inspection event in the community, but people can also contact Waters directly to have a car seat checked. Call her at 715-529-2861.