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Hillsborough school bus driver's response to potential child abduction brings honors

SEFFNER — On that day in December — so routine in her mind she can't recall the exact date — Kandi Burnham watched from her driver's seat as kids headed home with parents.

A Hillsborough County school bus driver of 13 years, she was ready to pull away when a scraggly man pushing a wheelchair came to the door at the Seffner bus stop.

"Excuse me, is Hailey on the bus?" He said he was her father.

Burnham looked in her rear-view mirror. A pair of twins in third grade watched from the back, the only kids left from the pickup at McDonald Elementary School — one of them named Bailey.

Catching his mistake, the man said, "Oh no, no, no, ma'am, I'm sorry. I mean Bailey."

He was actually her uncle, he claimed now, sent by Bailey's mom.

Burnham saw red flags, not the least of which was Bailey's panicked face.

It was only Burnham's second day on this route, but she knew the twins met their mother at an earlier stop. She hadn't shown up that day, but what kind of uncle doesn't even know his niece's name, or mention her brother? What was with the man's wheelchair and blanket? She interrogated him for five minutes, then hit the gas.

Burnham drove to a nearby school, leaving the man behind as he yelled and pounded on the bus. She described the incident to a bus dispatcher, who called police. Deputies questioned the man but let him go.

The twins' mother picked them up, and Burnham went on with other runs.

Carla Boyce, 45, had forgotten it was the twins' half-day. She said she had seen the man before, lurking in the area, and thinks he may be a drug addict.

"If they would have said, 'She went with him off the bus,' I would have probably went to the hospital and had a heart attack," Boyce said. "She was a hero to me that day."

She and her husband gave Burnham a card with a Walmart gift certificate.

• • •

Burnham says it was a routine day and no big deal. She was "just doing her job, you know?"

Just about everyone who has heard the story disagrees. Burnham's actions may have prevented a child from being abducted in a state devastated by recent horror stories.

Her boss nominated her as Florida's School Bus Operator of the Year, which Burnham won.

Praise for her quick thinking peaked this month when Gov. Rick Scott recognized Burnham, 34, at Florida's annual Missing Children's Day in Tallahassee.

She was stoic as she posed with her father, Vernon, and Scott and his wife, Ann, before a crowd of families and children. The glass award rested in the lap of her 6-foot, 1-inch frame, which was seated in a wheelchair.

The emcee lauding Burnham's judgment left the story behind those wheels untold.

• • •

Burnham started driving school buses when she was 21.

It's the family business.

Her mother, Debbie Crosby, is a school bus driver. So are two aunts. Her grandmother drove before Burnham was born, "back when the buses were two clutches and a stick shift," she said.

"There's always been this yellow bus sitting in my (parents') yard," she said.

Growing up in Dover, she helped her mom and siblings prepare for bus inspections. They cleaned her mother's bus inside and out, and waxed it, too. Burnham shot past her mom's height about age 12, so she wiped the ceilings and climbed on top of the hood to get the mirrors and windshield.

Around the same time, she used the bus to play school with her cousins and sister, Katrina. They sat in assigned seats and drove — engine off — to the classroom on the front porch.

"They knew they were never, ever to touch anything on the panels," Crosby said.

Now, Burnham has kids of her own, Joanna, 15, and Harley, 11.

She was working her usual job as a standby driver that day. Not everyone wants the responsibility of trying a new route every day, or driving around unfamiliar kids.

Not Burnham.

"You could send her anywhere," said her supervisor, Christine Hughes.

• • •

Burnham isn't driving buses now.

After two years of fighting through her diagnosis, Burnham is on medical leave with multiple sclerosis. She expects to leave her job when she is approved for disability assistance.

In the early months, she worked through her disease and passed Department of Transportation physicals. That changed July 2, when she woke up and couldn't move the left side of her body or speak. It was like an overnight stroke.

She could walk before, but it felt like wearing concrete boots. Now she gets tired after 45 feet and relies on the wheelchair. She misses driving the bus.

"I'm like, why . . ." Burnham says, trailing off. "It's been such a part of my life for so long, even before I was behind the wheel."

The career driver relies on her parents, sister, a friend and, soon, Joanna, to help with errands. Instead of creating her famous Red Lobster-style cheddar biscuits, she gets frozen meals.

Not every driver is recognized for making everyday decisions that protect schoolchildren. That makes the timing of Burnham's recognition extremely special, said Crosby, who drives a bus for handicapped students.

It's a consolation prize for a job well done and over too soon.

Katie Sanders can be reached at ksanders@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Hillsborough school bus driver's response to potential child abduction brings honors 09/24/11 [Last modified: Saturday, September 24, 2011 5:31am]

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