For thirty-four years, Kimi Paumen has been responsible for overseeing the safe transport of students to and from school for the Buffalo / Hanover / Montrose (BHM) school district in Buffalo, Minnesota. Her drivers cover a 157 square mile area and a district population of over 25,000 residents, approximately 5,000 students who attend 5 separate elementary schools, a middle school and a high school and an alternative high school. While she’s seen ups and downs with the economy, never has she experienced anything like the COVID-19 crisis. As contract manager for Vision of Buffalo, the contracted transportation company serving the BHM district, she’s a hands-on leader.
To hear her tell her story, she says, “I experience life through the bus garage. We’ve got a family here. About 80 drivers, four mechanics and seven of us in the office. Now, we’re down to about ten drivers. I’m emotional about it. During normal times, the drivers will come in at 1 pm, drink coffee, talk and laugh. Now, it’s kind of sad. I don’t hear that laughter I used to hear before mid-March. I worry about my drivers who are sitting at home.”
She continued, “Our ten drivers now go to the schools, get the breakfasts and lunches for the families who have signed up through the school district for that assistance, and will be done in 2 to 3 hours. Five days a week. They are accompanied by the “paras”, the educational specialist professionals, on the meal deliveries, who hand out the food to those in need. It’s not uncommon for us now to receive thank you notes from the families.”
Kimi describes that it is the drivers that get her out of bed in the morning. She said her purpose was to get the kids to school on time and then get them home safely. That kept the parents happy and the school district happy. She describes her drivers really care about the students. They go way beyond the call of duty. If a child’s parent or guardian isn’t around on the afternoon drop off, the driver will call us, we’ll call the parent or guardian, and often we’ll wait there, until their parent or guardian arrives. Or if we can’t do that, our drivers will drop off the child on their own time. Or if a child leaves something on the bus, they’ll deliver it to the home or make arrangements to deliver it the following morning. She says, “Those kids are theirs.”
Now, the purpose has shifted. It’s all about making sure that kids who need the help are getting the nutritious food they need.
One of Kimi’s drivers each week makes a video for her kids, telling them how much she misses them and puts it up on Facebook. She says the kids love it and comment, “We miss you, too!” Many of her drivers are retired. Her drivers are evenly split between men and women.
Kimi loves her job and says she’s glad to come to work. She says, “It’s what I have to do.” During this time, she sends out a weekly email to all the drivers, with an inspirational thought at the end of her message or something lighthearted to keep their spirits up.
To let them know she still loves them, she and her office staff, paying for it out of their own pockets, held a Taco Tuesday party for Cinco de Mayo. Her drivers received a box lunch of tacos, served by the office staff who wore gloves and masks. On June 4, the last scheduled day of school, they will serve a box lunch of grilled pork chops, baked beans and potato salad to all the drivers. She says, “We want to see their faces, to have them see our faces, to let them know we’re thinking about them every day. We want them to come back as soon as they can.”
She describes her leadership style as one of, “A lot of love. Now, I’m sending them letters each week, and several I speak with on the phone, too, to check in. When we’re in normal times, I make cookies and banana bread to keep them full and happy! I’m passionate about my drivers. I miss the social interaction. I’m a big hugger. Not sure I’ll be able to do that when we’re back, I guess the elbow bumps will have to work for then.”
“I know my team appreciates me. They say I’m lovable, kind and work my butt off to make others happy. Some have said they stick around for me.”
When asked what energizes and inspires her, Kimi said, “Prayers. And friendship with the drivers, office staff and mechanics.”
When asked how she’s making impact, Kimi said, “I keep a smile on my face. I feed my drivers. They make sure the kids get fed. Together we make sure everyone is OK. And we pray when this thing is behind us and we’ll all be back together.”
To date, since mid-March, BHM Schools Nutrition Services has given out over 145,000 free meals. They have even started distributing precooked “heat and eat” meals for the weekend.
Leading the charge in her district to make sure needy children receive at home the healthy and nourishing meals they need during the COVID-19 crisis, Kimi Paumen is creating a great impact in the BHM district.