Few things say “Hope Network” like the iconic red buses that buzz about Kent County and environs. But far more important than the vehicles themselves is the precious cargo within.
Just ask Matt DeBose. Or his brother Clarence. Or any of the other 45 men and women who jump into the driver’s seat day in and day out to provide more than a quarter-million rides annually for the nearly 1,500 consumers who depend on Hope’s Department of Transportation Services. “Some of our drivers are on the road 12 hours a day, and if there’s snow, 15,” says Joan Konyndyk, director of transportation services, emphasizing that drivers take breaks for safety’s sake.
The DeBose brothers both forged careers at Steelcase, Inc., before deciding to spend their retirement years in the service of others. Matt, who’s the older of the two siblings at 72, considered putting in for a job with an area school system after his 19 years at Steelcase. But during his first exposure to Hope’s consumers, he was hooked. “If you want somebody to appreciate you,” he says of passengers on his bus, “they really appreciate you.”
Clarence, who’s 68, remembers walking out the doors of Steelcase after 21 years and “walking into a different world” at Hope Network. “I said ‘Wow!’ These are people who really need me. There’d have to be something really, really wrong for me to stop doing what I’m doing.”
The DeBose brothers hail from a family of 10 children born to a father who worked as a pastor, and his homemaker wife. From time to time, the couple took in foster children – some with special needs – which meant living in close quarters in the home on Grand Rapids’ South Side. Both brothers worked a variety of odd jobs during their youth – everything from delivering the Grand Rapids Herald to washing cars. Both graduated from the now-defunct South High School, and eventually signed on at the office furniture giant.
Matt came on board first with Hope, in 2002. Clarence followed a few years later. They both work shifts of at least 30 hours weekly, and have come to know virtually all the myriad routes that criss-cross Grand Rapids and surrounding communities. Clarence has a regular route most days, while Matt bats utility for drivers in need of a sub.
Joan Konyndyk can’t say enough about them: “They’re very dedicated. I never have to worry about either one showing up.” In fact, there’s probably more concern that the brothers don’t overdo. According to Transportation Services Manager Al Wiltse, Matt walked in after a 10-hour shift recently, only to find out that another driver coming into work had suddenly learned that her daughter had been taken to a hospital following a car accident. “Matt turned right around,” Al remembers. “Didn’t even punch out. Just went right back out again. Probably did another three hours.”
Al says that both brothers – and this is reflective of the nearly four dozen others who drive as well – take their positions very seriously. “They’re really focused on the consumers,” he says, “and willing to do whatever it takes.”
Both brothers have tender stories to tell about the special way they’ve been inspired by certain passengers. Matt recalls the first time he picked up a consumer who could neither walk nor talk, and had a hard time moving his legs and arms. “It’s all I could do from breaking down in tears,” he says.
Clarence’s involvement with consumers often goes beyond a paycheck. On numerous occasions, he’s arranged rides for consumers bound for dances or recreation centers. He does it with full approval of his superiors and the consumers’ guardians and caseworkers. But he doesn’t get paid a dime; it’s all on his own time. “I just felt like I wanted to do more than just transport my passengers,” says Clarence, who will stick close by during the occasion and then escort them home. “I never leave them at all,” he says. “I wouldn’t leave them. I just love what I do. I really do.”
All Aboard Bus No. 79
Here’s what Tom Rademacher, who writes the stories for CAKE, discovered one recent afternoon during a short run while aboard a Hope Network bus driven by Clarence DeBose:
It’s 1:30 when we pull out of the parking lot on 36th Street SE, where the fleet is parked and maintained. The first stop is just 100 yards away, in Building 1 on the same campus, where Clarence waits for a consumer to be bundled up against the cold.
He patiently walks beside her as she shuffles slowly to the bus. He guides her up the steps, one arm around her waist. Once she’s in and he’s at the wheel of the bus, he glances back: “You buckled up, babe?” Click. “Alright!” says Clarence, and pulls away.
We travel east on 36th and then south on Kalamazoo to drop off our young lady in the Crystal Springs development, then pick up five more consumers at an area business not far from there. It’s a fairly lively handful of men and women, and it includes a gentleman whom Clarence has voluntarily driven to movies, dances and more with his friends – all in the name of doing unto others. “He takes us to Craig’s Cruisers,” the young man says, and shoots Clarence a wide smile. Clarence picks it up in the rear-view, and smiles back.
Two of the male passengers tease each other about what should be the hot topic of conversation – one sticks to sports, while the other would rather discuss world events. Eventually, talk revolves around Clarence. In short, they feel comfortable and safe with him as their driver. They like him, and they say so.
Clarence is en route back to the 36th Street campus, but needs to drop off Leetrice Souza first at a home on the city’s South Side. Before she exits, though, Leetrice relates how Clarence has taken her, too, to social events, and how grateful she is for it. Then she delivers the quote of the day: “My grandma’s like, ‘You get out more than I do!’”