When 5-year-old twins Fionnuala and Ceilidh Climer get on the bus to school each day, they are greeted by a familiar voice.
“Hello number one princess, hello number two princess!” driver Alvin Carter calls out.
Carter, referred to fondly as Mr. Alvin by the twins, is a driver and custodian at the girls’ school in Skokie, Ill. Other times he greets them with, “Good morning, sunshine!” or a joke.
“He says, ‘Can I borrow your dress?’ And I say no, and I start laughing,” Fionnuala said.
Carter has worked at Elizabeth Meyer School for 28 years. During that time, he’s become a well-known figure in the community.
“Even before I knew him … I’d heard about him from our neighbors, whose kids were in middle school and high school,” said Siobhan Climer, the twins’ mom. “They’re like, ‘Oh, when you go to kindergarten, you’re going to get Mr. Alvin!‘”
Conversations with the kids keep him motivated
For nearly three decades, Carter has driven the bus for kindergarteners and he loves it. He said they make his day.
“The faces, the smiles, the greets, and all that stuff,” he said. “In the lunchroom, it’s like we’re brothers and sisters, so it’s hard to really not be there.”
Carter has eight children of his own, all adults now. He said the kids on the bus remind him of when his children were in kindergarten, and he revels in that.
In fact, he’s tried to retire over the years, but just can’t bring himself to do it.
“Every time, I remember the faces I see in the morning, I’m like, ‘Oh, I can’t do this. I got to be there,’” he said.
In addition to missing those sweet faces, Carter said he also can’t pull himself away from the interactions.
“I’m sitting in the lunchroom with them and it’s like, I can’t leave,” he said. “I can’t even leave to go eat lunch because we always have a conversation.”
Those talks, and those relationships, got put on hold when COVID-19 hit.
A few months into the pandemic, he heard that kids and parents were worried about him, so he revved up the empty school bus and drove around to their houses.
“I’d stop and I’d honk and they’re standing at the window,” he said. “[I’d] let them see that I’m OK. There’s a little one on the bus right now, she used to stand by the window with her older brother and sister, just to wave at me, and that made me feel very special.”
And even though some school districts in Illinois and across the country saw shortages of bus drivers as schools reopened, quitting wasn’t an option for Carter.
While Carter and the Climer twins joke and talk about dresses, their mom, Siobhan, also cherishes another aspect of their relationship.
When Fionnuala was 4 years old, she was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a cancer that most often occurs in children.
Siobhan said the doctors were able to remove the tumor and Fionnuala is doing wonderfully now, but she still had to miss school for medical appointments when she started kindergarten last year. And Carter noticed.
“I know a couple of times when Fionnuala would be out, he’d ask me, ‘Where’s the other one?’ And I might say, ‘Oh, she has an appointment’ or, you know, ‘She’s not feeling so well,’” Siobhan said.
“It was just a lot of empathy behind Mr. Alvin’s eyes, even when he’s smiling and joking … And he’d say, ‘Well, tell her that I miss her,’ and he’d honk for her, when she was inside.”
Students seek him out years after the bus rides end
In addition to just having fun, Carter sees it as his duty to motivate each child on his bus.
“I’d like them to be successful in life,” he said. “So if it starts at kindergarten, then it might continue.”
Carter doesn’t claim any credit, but speaks with pride about some of his former students who have gone on to be doctors, nurses and engineers. He honks at them when he sees them, and they love running into him, too. Though, Carter jokes that it can all be too much sometimes.
“When I go [to] Target, sometimes I gotta try and hide because I run into so many of them,” he said. “You try to hide, but they still come find you. They’ll find you. I don’t know how, but they know, ‘Oh, there’s Mr. Alvin over there’ … I like it. I just love being around. That motivates me. That’s what keeps me going.”
Try as he might, he just can’t hide. But really, as Ceilidh has witnessed, little stops him from chatting.
“He talks to people, even if it’s a snowstorm or a rainstorm,” she said. “He always stops by and talks to anyone … He says good morning to the grown-ups and the kids, every single day.”
This story is part of our Community Changemakers series. If you want to nominate someone who selflessly brings joy and change to your community, please share their story here.