ST. PETERSBURG — Barbara Irizarry makes the effort to get to know her passengers on Route 11.
The Pinellas bus driver greets people at each stop, learning their names and taking an interest in what they’re thinking and how they’re doing.
So when Herb Hayden, 84, was struggling to carry his bags off the bus, Irizarry noticed. Then, as she was helping him take his things to the door, she noted that the entryway at his mobile home was cluttered with trash and debris.
“Herb doesn’t have family here,” said Irizarry, 61. “He needed help. And when I see something, I say something. So we got to work.”
Irizarry approached two of her other Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority passengers, Hopeton Johnson and Judy Martin, and asked if they’d be willing to help her clean out Hayden’s place.
The two had gotten to know Irizarry a year ago after she took over Route 11, running from south St. Petersburg north through Pinellas Park. They quickly obliged. They had seen Hayden on the bus but didn’t know him well. That didn’t matter, though, Johnson said. He needed help.
Irizarry picked Johnson up in her car one day in September and asked him where the nearest store was. They needed supplies — plastic gloves, extra-strength commercial bags, water.
“The fact that Miss Barbara went into her wallet and paid for this stuff, it shows there’s caring people out there,” said Johnson, 50. “In America, nobody gives you anything for free. It’s gimme, gimme. But not Miss Barbara.”
Irizarry has helped a passenger before. She’s driven routes in Pinellas for 16 years, always keeping an eye out for riders who are particularly kind. If she learns of a way she can help — buying them clothes or helping them find a place to live — she’s quick to do what she can.
When Irizarry and the others arrived at Hayden’s home, they were overwhelmed. Their first thought: How do we get inside?
Hayden has lived in St. Petersburg almost 30 years. He moved into his place at Palm Haven Mobile Home Park about four or five years ago when another mobile home caught fire. He lives with his cat. He doesn’t have close friends or loved ones nearby, he said. He does everything on his own.
Things became more difficult for him when the mobile home park started requiring that residents carry their trash to a dumpster instead of setting it by the mailbox. The walk was difficult for Hayden, especially while carrying a bag. His trash started to collect in his trailer.
“It just got way ahead of me and I couldn’t cope by myself,” Hayden said. “I had no one to ask.”
The piles accumulated over a couple of years. The task seemed overwhelming.
It took several visits and dozens of trash bags, but the Route 11 Crew, as they like to call themselves, stayed with it. Little by little, the piles diminished and Hayden’s home reappeared.
And still, the crew stayed on the job. Irizarry bought Hayden a garbage can. Martin, 56, found a free dresser on the side of the road.
In the midst of their work, they discovered a train collection Hayden keeps, with all sorts of makes and styles. The team picked up some plastic containers and helped him sort and store them.
Last week, Martin brought by some extra curtains she found at home.
“I couldn’t believe someone would do all that,” Hayden said. “It’s something I never thought would happen to me in a million years.”
The bond that has grown among the Route 11 Crew pushed beyond the doors of the bus, even beyond the cleanup at Hayden’s home.
“I remember seeing Herb on the bus and thinking, ‘That man is always by himself. I wonder if he’s lonely,’" Martin said. Now, she visits with him, helping him do laundry and planning social outings they both can enjoy.
On Saturday, Irizarry picked up Hayden and they went to a barbecue at a church near Martin’s home. They ate hot dogs and hamburgers and enjoyed the beautiful weather.
On Wednesday, Johnson, Martin and Hayden talked about the Cross-Bay Ferry and how fun it would be to catch a ride to Tampa and enjoy the fresh air out on the water.
“We’re a family now,” Martin said.
Martin has plans to make them matching T-shirts for Christmas. She picked up some navy blue shirts the other day and is working on adding “Bus 11 Crew” to the front and “11” on the sleeve and back.
Martin wanted to add “Crew Leader” to Irizarry’s shirt as the one who pulled them together.
Irizarry refused. “We’re all equal."