03/05/07 — She can't stop taking care of 'her' students

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She can't stop taking care of 'her' students

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on March 5, 2007 1:52 PM

Patricia Gurley has made it her business to see that children get to school each day.

For nine years, she has worked to ensure that handicapped and special needs students are safely transported from home to school and back again. She has never missed a day, even when it meant juggling her own life or being in the hospital.

"There's a lot of kids out there that need a way to go to school," she shrugged, as if that were explanation enough for her efforts.

"Not to badmouth anyone, but some of these kids do have a rough life. A lot of them would rather be at school, the way some of the neighborhoods are. ... I couldn't see making any of them miss breakfast."

And so, each day she can be found at EC Wayne Transportation, where she typically arrives at 5 a.m. and often works until 6 p.m.

"I enjoy coming here first thing in the morning, making a pot of coffee for my drivers," she said. "Some of them have been with me from three years up to six or seven years."

The business has undergone some changes since it was started nearly a decade ago. When she was first hired, as a driver, the company, then called Silver Line, had a few vans.

Within a month or so, she approached the owner and suggested he "take it a little further." He responded by asking her to coordinate it.

"I told him I would love to try it. We had people making bets I would be there a week," she laughed. "This is my ninth year and I'm still loving it."

She ran the service for Silver Line for five years. When it changed owners, she stayed on with Safe and Sound for another three years. Last August, the business again changed hands. This time, it was bought by Curtis Linton, who Mrs. Gurley has known since the mid-1960s.

"Pat runs this business," Linton said. "I may own it but she runs it."

The affiliation has been mutually beneficial.

"I was going to get out of it at one time, but I knew it was going to be good working with Curt. And I couldn't leave the kids," Mrs. Gurley said. "I want to see some of them graduate."

EC Wayne has six regular passenger vans, four school buses and three vans equipped for wheelchairs and handicapped patrons. It is contracted to Wayne County Public Schools, with vehicles dispatched to every school in the county. An estimated 145 students are served, ranging in age from 3 to 21 years old.

As general manager, Mrs. Gurley secures and works with the drivers, assisting wherever needed.

She knows every child by name and says each holds a special place with her, "even the real mean ones."

"I can just look in their eyes (and) I fall right into their world," she said. "I just try to get in their world while they're in my care."

Her concern extends beyond office hours. Business cards include her home number, "because you just don't ever know when they'll need to call you," she said.

She has witnessed a lot -- from physical and mental struggles, to some emotional ones.

"I have had some kids that were badly abused at home," she said. "They don't tell me, but I can see it in their faces, or they would draw a picture of a child crying."

Youths tend to open up to her, which she attributes to her motherly approach. She and husband Ronnie have two grown children -- Ernie Campbell of Goldsboro and Kim Fournier of Spring Lake. A 22-year-old grandson also lives with them.

The family has had their own struggles recently -- a 20-year-old grandson died and the following week her husband underwent nine-hour back surgery.

And still, Mrs. Gurley didn't miss a day of work. Instead, she found solace there.

"If I'm ever sad, this is where I want to come," she said. Helping others proves to be therapeutic.

She even managed to keep up the perfect attendance record a few years ago when she was hospitalized.

"I worked out of the hospital," she explained. "They called me at the hospital and I scheduled things from there."

And don't expect that to change, she said.

"I have a couch I can lay on. I have a bottle of aspirin," she said. "No, I don't stay out of work. It would worry me whether the kids get to school."

And they care about her, too.

Daudra Spencer, a student at Norwayne Middle School who walks with the aid of crutches, worried about Mrs. Gurley after her grandson died.

"She normally calls me about every day," Mrs. Gurley said. "She told me I could call her. She was trying to comfort me."

Not that every situation has been ideal or easy, though. Four years ago, she worked with a 10th-grade youth with a reputation for being hateful and disrespectful, she said.

"But he never disrespected me from the get-go," she said. "All of a sudden, he straightened his life up. He was going to graduate.

"He wrote me a letter -- couldn't half spell -- thanking me for what I had done for him."

The letter came when Mrs. Gurley was "fixing to quit," she said.

"I sat down with that letter. I thought, you know what? I'll bet he's never sat down and written a letter.

"I came back the next year."

And at 61, Mrs. Gurley shows no sign of slowing down.

Not, she said, as long as there is the "challenge that I have got another kid to go somewhere, to know I got them there for breakfast."