Brenna R. Kelly
Kenny Kelley has been driving across Daviess County for nearly five decades. First, he delivered milk to grocery stores, then he hauled snack cakes.
For the past nine years Kelley has been transporting his most precious cargo – children.
“I just love being around kids, especially the little ones,” Kelley said. “I don’t know how to explain it. I’ve never in nine years had a day that I got up and did not want to go to work.”
Not only does Kelley, 72, get up and go to work, he’s often the first one there, making coffee at 5 a.m. for the bus dispatchers and getting his bus ready to pick up 20 preschoolers.
When he gets to Highland Elementary School, Kelley doesn’t just wave goodbye to his students. He leads them in with his “choo-choo train,” helps them go through the breakfast line, then opens their milk or cuts up their pancakes.
He doesn’t leave until every student – bus or car rider – has gotten a hug and a word of encouragement.
“When you watch him, you’re inspired to be like him,” said Owens Saylor, Daviess County superintendent. “He has a servant’s heart. One of our guiding principles is that everything we do must be done with a servant’s heart; nobody represents that better than Kenny Kelley.”
For his service, Kelley won the 2016 Fred Award from the Kentucky Association of School Administrators (KASA). The award recognizes non-administrative staff, students or volunteers whose extraordinary effort creates a positive learning atmosphere at their school.
The award was inspired by the best-selling book “The Fred Factor,” by Mark Sanborn, in which he recounts how his postal carrier – Fred – goes the extra mile in delivering the mail and everything else.
“There are too many Freds in schools and districts across the state to count,” said Rhonda Caldwell, KASA deputy director. “The attitude of giving to students is just something that Kentucky’s school and district personnel have engrained in them.”
Kelley, who was one of three finalists, was surprised with the award in July at the KASA conference in Louisville.
“My wife had to make me get up because I’m not that type of person,” he said. “Just let me do my thing. I don’t want to be up in the limelight.”
Though he’s fought cancer twice, lost his first wife when she was 48 and his daughter just five years ago at the age of 41, Kelley calls himself the “the luckiest guy in the world.”
It’s all in the attitude, he said.
“People may make more money, have better this or better that,” he said, “but I’m not going to let nobody spoil my day. Only me and God control my attitude.”
But when he retired as a delivery driver, he briefly lost his sense of purpose and wasn’t sure what do to next.
“I just thought, well, is it just time to die because you don’t have nothing else to do?” he said. “But my wife said, ‘Go to the school bus.’”
One day, Kelley mentioned to a neighbor’s 4-year-old granddaughter that he wanted to drive a school bus.
The little girl replied, “My daddy will get you a job,” Kelley said. Her father worked for the district and her mother was a preschool teacher.
“She came home and told my husband, ‘Mister Kenny needs a job driving a bus,” said the girl’s mother Luanne Robbins. “We hadn’t even met him and I’m like, ‘Who is Mister Kenny?’”
The Robbins soon met Kelley told him where to turn in an application.
“So I applied and started driving a bus. Well, it’s just like I died and went to heaven,” Kelley said.
Kelley first drove a bus for special needs students and his wife became a bus monitor on another special needs bus.
That’s how the Kelleys met Joseph Clements. Joseph, who has Down syndrome, was about 6 years old at the time and rode on Ruth Kelley’s bus. When the Kelleys’ buses met in a parking lot to transfer students, Joseph spotted Kenny Kelley.
“He would look over at me and pat his seat and want me to come over and sit down,” Kelley said. “Well, I admit I was hooked.”
The Kelleys got to know Joseph’s family and began to provide respite care on the weekends.
“He’s been coming to our house now going on eight years just about every weekend,” he said. “There’s just something about him. This kid, there’s just nothing I wouldn’t do for him.”
Joseph is now 14 and is like member of family.
“He’s not just family, he’s like my arm or my leg,” Kelley said. “It just doesn’t bother me to take care of that kid; it’s just amazing.”
That’s how Kelley treats all of his bus riders, as if they were his own grandkids. He spends many evenings attending their T-ball games and dance recitals.
After driving the bus for special needs students for six years, Kelley finally got his dream route – preschool.
“All my parents just adore him. You know there’s a lot of reservations about putting your 3-year-old on a big, huge school bus,” preschool teacher Luanne Robbins said. “But he just has the best relationship with my parents because they get to see him every day and he’s always joyful and positive.”
Kelley greets the parents as they put their children on the bus.
“He’s like a grandfather for every student he comes in contact with,” said Sonya Simpson, whose child rode Kelley’s bus last school year. “He goes out of his way to make them feel loved and make them feel like they are so special. But also as parents, makes us feel wonderful about putting our students on the bus.”
In his nine years, Kelley has only missed four days of work, and hasn’t missed a day in the three years he’s been on the preschool route.
“Even though they are preschoolers, just 3 and 4, they like that consistency of looking up there and seeing the same person,” he said.
Kelley hopes they will be seeing him for a long time.
“If the good Lord lets me, at 80 years old I’ll still be driving a school bus,” he said.
MORE INFO …
Luanne Robbins Luanne.Robbins@Daviess.kyschools.us
Rhonda Caldwell Rhonda@Kasa.org