School bus drivers delivering meals in rural New Mexico


RAMAH, N.M. (AP) — Riding as a passenger on a nearly empty school bus through rural McKinley County Monday morning, Shari Lambson was still in disbelief.

“I was thinking how unreal this is. Is this really happening?” Lambson, a bus driver for Gallup-McKinley County Schools, said. “Just what we are being put through, how emotionally draining it is to people.”

Wearing nitrile gloves and a face mask, Lambson was riding with driver Jeff Bond. They were transporting several coolers filled with meals that the Ramah Elementary Cafeteria staff had put together to deliver to local students at specific sites scattered in these rural communities about 50-60 miles south of Gallup. In all, two buses loaded with about 100 meals departed for rural McKinley County Monday.

“For some of the students, this is their only meal,” Lambson said.

Two weeks earlier, Lambson was on a bus full of students driving them back to their homes on the last day of school before spring break, thinking that she would pick them up again a week later. Now, it is uncertain when that’s going to happen as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread.

The New Mexico Department of Health reported around 300 confirmed cases in the state Monday, with two cases in Cibola County and 12 cases in McKinley County. The Department of Health also reported more than two dozen people in the state have recovered from COVID-19.

A statewide stay-at-home instruction issued by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham Nov. 23 remains in effect at least until April 10.

As the school bus rode through communities along New Mexico Highway 53, a patrol officer with the Ramah-Navajo Police joined as an escort. The first stop was at the Candy Kitchen turn off, where Tina Torres, a teacher at the Pine Hill schools, waited in a car with her granddaughter. She walked out, went to the back of the bus, and Lambson handed out a meal.

The meals they started delivering Friday included peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cereal, fruit and milk.

For Torres, it means a lot because she does not know when she is going to go back to work or how much longer would she continue to get paid.

“It is very important because we are in the unknown, because we don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said. “We have several families out here, but I know there’s a family with five children and I know their vehicle broke down and they can’t come out here.”

For other families who live far away from the delivery sites where the bus cannot deliver because of the remoteness and conditions of the dirt roads, the meal might not be worth the drive out. But for most families, particularly the most vulnerable due to economic hardships, the meals and the district’s effort are keeping them going.

Lambson recalled that the first day they delivered meals, they were thinking about all the kids who might have gone without regular meals for two weeks. She recalled a child who was afraid to come out of the house to pick up the meal. The child’s grandmother and mother were there, and they were quite moved by the gesture.

“The mother was crying. She was very emotional,” Lambson recalled. “She was so glad to see us come.”

While local schools remain closed, more than 30 schools in the district have been handing out meals to children 1 to 18 years old. The Zuni Public School District, as well as the Pine Hill schools, have been delivering or giving away meals to local students.

“We are giving them some nourishment,” Lambson said. “For us, it gives you a good feeling.”