CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Friday's first day of school in Kanawha County started at about 4 a.m. for Mary Slate, Billy Wiseman and Brian Newhouse.
The three Kanawha County Schools bus drivers recently took home top awards at the Southeastern School Bus Roadeo in Kentucky, where participants take on simulated bus routes and are judged by their navigation and precision under pressure, in addition to their ability to spot vehicle defects.
For the veteran school bus drivers, though, the competition is play. The real work happens during the school year, in a county where more meth labs are busted than anywhere else in the state, and in a school district where nearly 60 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price meals.
Slate, who has been working for Kanawha County Schools for 15 years, remembers when she realized her job meant a lot more than just operating a vehicle.
A girl in the second grade was waiting at the bus stop without shoes one morning.
"When I pulled up, I said, 'Honey, you can't go to school like that,' and she cried. The dog had chewed them up overnight, and it was the only pair she had. Where her parents were, I don't know," Slate said.
Slate called the school to make sure the girl had a pair of shoes waiting for her when she arrived.
"You see stuff like that," she said. "We see a lot of kids that don't have a lot."
Newhouse, who has worked as a school bus driver in the county for 11 years, remembers feeling the need to intervene in the life of a young passenger who he saw was making some bad decisions.
"I did what I had to do. I put her off the bus. I talked to her parents. The girl hated me for about a year or two after that," Newhouse said. "But then she came up to me and thanked me for turning her life around. She was headed down the wrong road."
Wiseman, who has worked as a Kanawha school bus driver for more than 25 years, says he sees himself in a position to make a difference for students outside of school -- to get to know them.
"You build a good rapport with them. It's very rewarding when students get on at the beginning of the year and have bad attitudes or don't feel like being friendly and, by the time the year is up, you get them to come around," he said.
"If you show them respect, they'll give it back. They can tell if you care about them or not. They sense it."
A lot has changed in the public school system over the years -- what Wiseman calls "layers and layers" of security and responsibility.