Some people might be intimidated at the idea of driving a bus for the handicapped, with discipline high on the list of possible challenges. But for Len Wertz, who drove the bus for the Association from 1980 to 1988, discipline was not a problem. He easily commanded respect from the students with his large and formidable presence and his ability to connect to each one of them as individuals.
Len has many vivid memories of the clients who rode on his bus. He will never forget Roy Fowler zipping by the bus on his way home from school, riding a bike he had taken from the schoolyard at Montrose Junior High. Roy was already back at the group home when Len arrived there with the rest of the kids.
Brian Novlesky was always one to “throw figures around.” One morning he told Len about a new stereo he had bought for three hundred dollars. The next week, when he told Len that he bought earphones, Len asked what he had paid for them. “Ten thousand dollars,” said Brian. Len teased him about buying ten thousand dollar earphones for his three hundred dollar stereo.
James Fazikas was given a rough time at first, especially from two of the girls who ruled the bus and didn’t take well to strangers. When Jim was frustrated with them one day, he finally said, “I’m going to take you to my doctor and he’ll straighten you out!”
Len drove groups to the Special Olympics events and to Camp He Ho Ha. The first trip to the camp was memorable for Len because he missed the turnoff to the lake. Len thought he would make a joke of it and told everyone, “Well, I guess we’re going back where we came from.” Brian Novlesky started to cry and Doris Bourgeois just “laughed her head off’ at the idea.
During a lunch stop at Sturgeon Lake, there was something mentioned about distances traveled. Bill Hartle’s comment was, “Well, I don’t know how it is since they straightened the highway out, but it used to be sixty miles.” He had heard that fact and it stuck with him.
In the winter time, cars would sometimes get stuck in the streets around town. Len would stop the bus and all the bigger guys would help push the cars out of the snow. All the while, Doug Whyte would be busy telling the drivers, “ Don’t you worry, we’ll get you out.”
Mark Lancaster could get into the bus with some help. Len says he had a real sense of humour even though he couldn’t talk. He used to throw his knit hat down the aisles. Len used to tell him that if he kept it up, he’d throw that cap right out the window. This used to make Mark laugh. The next time Mark threw the hat on the floor, Len stopped the bus, and by the time he got down the aisle to speak to him, Mark had that hat back on the seat beside him and was smiling a huge smile. “He got me.”
At first Len wondered why people would send a child to live in a group home. But after a time he came to understand that the group homes served as a way for the parents to ensure support for their children for the time when they would no longer be there for them. They provide a structure of support beyond their immediate family.
I thought well, how could these people let these kids go into group homes and then maybe go back on the weekend. And after a bit, it started to sink in why. If something happened to one of the parents, well then these kids would not really be disturbed that much. Sure they would miss the parent, but their home life pretty well stayed the same.
Len says the experience he had with the handicapped children made him so thankful that he did not have to deal with the same problems in the case of his own children. “There but for the grace of God, go I.”