Success Stories

Ross Leavitt driving a bus

Ross Leavitt loves buses.

Since he can remember, he has been fascinated with anything on wheels, but especially school buses. He isn’t even sure why.

“I call them Twinkies because that’s what they look like,” he said grinning.

When Ross was in high school, he was going on field trips as part of the Youth Transition Program’s (YTP) job club to explore various community employers. At this point, he had different work experiences and paid jobs ranging from shed-building to working at a gas station, but nothing had clicked yet.

YTP Specialist Corey Ackerman was on the bus with Ross and noticed that Ross was asking the driver questions.

He was just firing questions at the driver and seemed pretty intensely interested,” Corey said. “So, I asked Ross, ‘Have you ever thought about being a bus driver?’”

Turns out, Ross had always been passionate about buses but hadn’t mentioned this at school.

Turns out, Ross had always been passionate about buses but hadn’t mentioned this at school.

“My role is to listen, pay attention and get to know the student, find out what kind of job is really going to be a good fit,” Corey said.

Corey set up a meeting with Ross and Kathaleen Maley, location manager at Mid-Columbia Bus Company, which is contracted with most of the school districts in Union County to provide school bus services.

“You can’t get a commercial driver’s license until you are 18,” Corey said. “Ross was 17 at the time, so we had to work to get him ready.”

Kathaleen said the company is often looking for workers.

“We are always looking for drivers, so when Ross told me he was interested in this line of work, I was really excited,” she said.

In order to obtain a commercial driver’s license, a person must pass four different tests: general knowledge, air brake test, passenger endorsement, and school bus endorsement. Ross struggled with the test that Kathaleen said most have difficulty with – the air brake test, which requires memorization and numbers to know exactly how long to build air pressure in the brakes.

“Ross is like me, he isn’t a book learner,” Kathaleen said. “He’s a hands-on learner who learns by doing or watching others doing. The guys here, especially Butch, took him under their wing and helped him learn.”

Ross Leavitt with the Mid-Columbia Bus Company

Ross, who has autism, graduated high school in 2017 with a modified diploma. He passed the commercial driving test and was hired. Now age 19, Ross works anywhere from 20 to 34 hours per week at Mid-Columbia Bus Company. In the morning, he is a substitute driver, picking up other driver’s shifts and in the afternoon he has a regular route.

His supervisor Kathaleen said he fits well with the team of more than 50 employees. She also said the kids love Ross, and that’s important to her.

“I hope he stays for a long time,” she said. “He does a great job interacting with the kids. He knows how to get on their level.”

Kathaleen’s advice to other employers considering hiring people with disabilities is to consider it a relationship like any other.

“Let them advance in their own way,” she said. “Don’t try to force it. You will learn from them and they learn from you.”

Ross lives at home with his family. He used his paychecks to buy a car. During down times at work, he repairs bus seats and does clerical work in the office. He is gradually taking on bigger tasks.

“I absolutely love it here,” Ross said. “More than any other job I’ve had, this is the one I love. I’m proud to be part of the Mid-Columbia family.”

Ross’s employment team includes: Corey Ackerman, YTP Specialist and Job Developer at La Grande School District; Jon Landers, service coordinator with Union County; former Vocational Rehabilitation counselor Michelle Archer, and Meg Moore, driving trainer for Mid-Columbia Bus Company.

View a photo slideshow of Ross at work