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For more than a decade, a group of Kelso school bus drivers have collected donations to help “their kids,” the students they drive to and from school every day. This Saturday was no different, as volunteers held the 12th Annual “Stuff the Bus” event with the goal of packing two school buses full of food and toys.

Lisa Whitman, a Kelso School District bus driver and chairperson of the event, started the “Stuff the Bus” toy and food drive 12 years ago. Each year since then, she and other Kelso transportation department employees have braved chilly and often rainy weather to collect donations of food, new toys and money from shoppers.

“It’s a big passion to help the children we all drive,” Whitman said, though she noted the donations go to families throughout Cowlitz County.

The food is donated to Lower Columbia CAP Food Warehouse, while the toys go to Jumbo’s Memorial Toy Run. Whitman uses any money they’re given to buy more toys, until the bus can’t hold anymore. Then, she donates any leftover money as well.

Whitman said that Jumbo’s Memorial Toy Run run involves local bikers who collect toys to distribute to children in need at an annual party. According to the run’s Facebook page, the tradition started in 1982.

This year, the toy parade will start Sunday at 1 p.m. at the Kelso Elks Club and make a loop around the city before they go back to the Elks and unload all the toys for the party. Whitman said the motorcycles are often decorated and loaded with toys, so it’s not unusual to see a teddy bear strapped to a bike during the parade.

An avid motorcyclist herself, she said the “Stuff the Bus” event in the past has provided enough toys on its own to fill the stage, in addition to the run’s other donations. While she usually has someone else drive the bus so she can ride her motorcycle in the parade, tomorrow’s potentially snowy weather means she’ll take the wheel of the bus instead, as the bus at Target is the one she drives on her routes.

Whitman said for her and other bus drivers, the event feels personal. They know the students on their buses well and often suggest families that might be good candidates for the toy run, as they’re the first school employee students see in the morning and the last employee they see in the afternoon.

“Sometimes they’re coming in from a bad situation, so my kids are all trained to say good morning, and I pull it out of them if they don’t want to say it, and (I say) ‘have a great day’,” Whitman said. “And stuff will happen at school and I get them back in a bad mood, so I have to change it. So it’s ‘let’s talk about something positive,’ something to make them feel good before they go home.”

This year the team had buses at Target and the Walmart on Seventh Avenue in Kelso. Whitman said donations have been coming in steadily all day and it looked like it was shaping up to be a pretty good year.

“This year has been pretty generous,” Whitman said. “We have a great community.”

The clear, sunny weather was also a help, she said, and rainy years tend to mean less people out shopping and less donations.

The generosity is not confined to the people who donate items, Whitman said, as Kelso School District donated the use of the buses for the weekend every year, and Target gives the drivers a discount when they go in to buy extra toys. Overall, Whitman said it’s all about coming together for the students.

“The whole reason we’re doing this is the kids,” Whitman said. “Some of our kids are in tough situations, so if we get a smile here and there it goes a long way.”

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