With her favorite turquoise mermaid dress pulled over her shorts and pink shirt, Ashlynn, 4, waited patiently at the end of the driveway outside her Orlo Vista home.
As she clutched her older sister Katie’s hand, she didn’t notice the endless houses with boarded-up windows, overgrown lawns and empty mailboxes. She was way too busy watching the end of her street.
Grape juice has stained her upper lip, but she hasn’t eaten breakfast yet. She foregoes sleeping in and watching cartoons every Saturday morning to board a bus that will take her to perhaps the best breakfast she’ll have all week.
Just around the corner at Lake Hill Baptist Church, Lorraine Warden-Davis swept candy wrappers and strips of gold paper up the center isle of her school bus, the pile growing larger as she moved from the back of the bus up to the front. As she did this, her son, Matthew, 15, opened the windows to let the breeze fill the long bus that’s been parked in the back lot of the church for a week.
She drives school buses for Orange County, but the bus Lorraine drives on Saturdays isn’t yellow, and doesn’t have “Orange County Public Schools” written on it. This bus is a brilliant gold, and almost shimmering in the morning light were huge wings painted down either side. She started the engine and pulled out of the parking lot.
The flying, golden bus finally turned the corner onto Ashlynn’s street.
“There’s my angel,” Lorraine said as she pulled up to the driveway.
“Good morning Ms. Lorraine!” Ashlynn said as she climbed into the bus and put the gold band Lorraine gave her around her small wrist.
It’s Saturday again, and though Lorraine has been driving school buses for Orange County for the past four years, driving her flying, golden bus on Saturdays is what she lives for.
Ashlynn is just one of about 60 children that Lorraine picks up every Saturday on her “gold route” through Orlo Vista, Ocoee, Winter Garden and Pine Hills for Orlando Children’s Church, a nonprofit Christian organization based in Maitland.
Lorraine’s winged, golden bus is one of 12 colorfully painted school buses that pick up children from all across the Orlando area, from Pine Hills to Bithlo, from Kissimmee to Apopka.
“These kids we pick up from all across Central Florida are well below the poverty level,” said Peter O’Driscoll, or “Mr. O” as the kids call him, founder and executive director of Orlando Children’s Church.
Every Saturday, OCC hands out donated McDonald’s breakfast to more than 400 children before their pint-sized church service held at the First Baptist Church of Maitland.
“This just might be the only time during the week where these kids get a good breakfast,” Lorraine said.
Ashlynn scurried down the steps of the golden bus and with countless other tiny feet, crossed the hot asphalt of the basketball court behind the church, and patiently waited in line.
One eager hand reached out for a McDonald’s breakfast sandwich and the other for a cup of cold orange juice. Through the chattering of children’s voices and the buzz of crinkling wrappers, another child asked for seconds — not for himself, but to take home for his parents.
“A lot of these kids don’t have very good father figures, if their fathers are even around at all,” said John Shelton, a volunteer teacher with Orlando Children’s Church. “So when I heard they had an opening for a boys’ second-grade teacher, I said, ‘Why not, I’ll give it a try,’ and now some of the boys don’t want to move up to third grade!”
“Mr. John” has been volunteering on Saturdays with Orlando Children’s Church for two and a half years.
He sat with his new class of second-grade boys at a picnic table as they ate their McDonald’s breakfast, and boys from his previous classes crowded around for his attention. They all played board games or assembled the craft for that week until they ran out to the soccer field to play before the service. The girls were called in first.
“A lot of times, kids come with their dad’s or older sibling’s shirt on, dragging around their ankles, so I’ll go into our shed where we keep our donated clothes and get them a new shirt or belt. I really try and keep up with the boys outside of OCC, but some will stop coming because their families couldn’t afford rent and had to move, and I won’t see them again,” John said.
Demand spurs growth
Orlando Children’s Church, founded seven years ago by husband and wife Peter and Isabel O’Driscoll, has grown from just 20 children to more than 400. “Our numbers have even swelled to over 800 on our special event days or ‘bring a friend’ day. We’re all about kids!” said Isabel.
Lorraine cooled off in the break room with the other bus drivers as they shared funny stories about “their kids” that day, quietly laughing under the sound of singing children’s voices in the next room.
The service ended with Mr. O dismissing the girls to their classrooms by grade as the boys piled in from outside. A short lesson was taught after the main service to interact with the kids in a smaller group setting about the main topic each week.
Lorraine knew it was time to fire up the bus again when she heard the thunder of countless feet stampeding down the stairwells as the boys laughed and raced out to the parking lot.
With hands full of coloring sheets from the craft table outside, Ashlynn climbed back onto the gold bus; she had her mermaid dress in hand now. She’s the first one to be picked up and the last one to get dropped off, but the long ride home was quiet now that stomachs were full and brows were sweaty from play.
One by one they’re dropped off, their gold wristbands littering the floor as the bus empties. “I’ll see you next week, Ms. Lorraine!” Ashlynn said as she dropped her wristband in the trash can next to the door.
“This is my favorite day of the week,” Lorraine said as she waved to Ashlynn out of the bus window. “I love these kids so much; I wish I could drive them around everyday.”