An employee of Regional School District 71 loads boxes filled with to-go bags of breakfasts and lunches onto a school bus early Monday morning. Bus drivers will deliver the food to needy families in the district who can't pick them up themselves.

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BELFAST, Maine — As the sun rose Monday morning, bus drivers for Regional School Unit 71 gathered at the garage to go over their route lists for the special task ahead of them: delivering bagged lunches and breakfasts to some of the district’s most vulnerable students.

Patsy Richards and Deb Venneman, who have gotten to know the kids they meet on their bus routes, know firsthand the importance of doing that. It’s why they offered to come back to work during the coronavirus pandemic, as the district works to ensure every child has enough food while schools are shut down.

“Some of these kids [only get] breakfast and lunch — that’s what they eat for the day,” Venneman, of Troy, said. “I’m just really glad we can do this.”

More than 80 percent of the district’s roughly 1,600 students — who live in Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Searsmont and Swanville — qualify for free and reduced-price lunch based on their family income, according to Superintendent Mary Alice McLean. Along with the school bus delivery service, the district is operating a curbside food pick-up program at Ames Elementary School in Searsmont and Captain Albert Stevens and East Belfast elementary schools, both in Belfast. Students and families can grab free bagged lunches at those schools from 8 a.m. to noon on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

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The school sites have been busy, McLean said. District staff prepared about 2,200 meals last week. She expects the number to jump this week to 8,000, and although the district has asked people with transportation to come to the schools to pick up their own lunches, many cannot.

That’s where the bus drivers come in.

“We’re doing it for the children,” Richards of Searsport said. “That’s what we’re all about.”

It’s not just lip-service, either. She and Venneman like to celebrate holidays with the students they drive, giving them treats such as pencils decorated for Christmas and festive green bracelets and necklaces on St. Patrick’s Day.

“We don’t know what they get at home,” Richards said.

“The teachers tell us that sometimes they’re the only new pencils they get in a year,” Venneman said.

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So they’re well aware that students living in poverty will be disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

As the yellow school bus lumbered along bumpy Waldo County roads and the women searched for the addresses on their delivery list, it was clear how many Mainers already live close to the edge.

At one small, dilapidated house, no one came to greet the bus. McLean jumped off to try to rouse someone inside. After a few minutes of knocking, a barefoot teenage boy sleepily walked out to pick up the paper bags of food.

“Do your homework,” the superintendent urged him.

“I am,” he said.

She got back in the bus.

“That made my heart happy,” she said later.

At other stops, moms and children met the bus.

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“Thank you so much for what you do,” one mother said. “It’s much appreciated.”

At another home, McLean asked a mother how her daughter was doing.

“She misses her friends and cries almost every day,” the mother said. “I tell her it’ll get better.”

Richards agreed.

“It will, honey. It will,” she said.

In a small county, people know each other, and they know when someone needs a little more help than usual. One family on the list was facing hard times, in part, because of the virus, which has caused many of the mother’s house cleaning clients to cancel on her. For them, Venneman wanted to do more than just drop off the bagged lunches and breakfasts, so she cleaned out her pantry and went on a baking spree. In the back of the bus, she had stashed grocery bags and a cooler, filled with a ham, ingredients for spaghetti, chicken soup, homemade Rice Krispies treats and Chex mix.

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“Just stuff to get them through the week,” Richards said.

When they handed over the food, the mom cried a little, and one of her kids gave Venneman a drawing he had made.

“Thank you, Miss Deb, for being our bus driver,” he wrote over a picture of a yellow bus driving under a blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds. “We wanted to make you these cards, to show how much we appreciate you!”

The drawing was a reminder of better — more normal times — in the school district. They’ll return, McLean said, but in the meantime, the school bus breakfast and lunch delivery service will continue.

“This is unprecedented. It’s a historical moment,” the 40-year veteran educator said of what’s happening right now. “I’m so proud of our RSU staff, and students and families collaborating together during this really difficult time.”

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