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Bus Driver Zito Builds Strong Connections with Students

UNC student, Eve Elliott, contributed this profile:

On an average pre-pandemic day, Mike Zito woke up to a 4 a.m. alarm. By 6:15 a.m., he had climbed into his yellow school bus and started his day. For the next few hours, Zito’s bus filled with dioramas, backpacks, and lots of sleepy children. Zito smiled as they piled in, and he drove them to Seawell Elementary, Smith Middle and Chapel Hill High schools. Later on, he hopped back in the driver’s seat to bring them all home. 

Despite the early hours, Zito loved driving students every day. But in March, Zito was told his passengers would no longer be waiting at the bottom of their streets. 

As COVID-19 kept students at home, Zito’s daily routine came to a halt. Immediately, he wondered how he could help. Meanwhile, Zito’s students were facing a problem of their own: hunger. Without school lunch, many Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools students needed meals delivered to their homes. 

To meet their needs, CHCCS quickly created the Food for Students program to serve meals at nearly 30 neighborhood sites. Immediately, Child Nutrition staff began to pack thousands of meals every day. A question arose: With orders of social distancing in place, how would these paper bags get into the children’s hands? The answer: school buses and volunteers.

Since March 16, Zito and other Transportation Department employees began delivering thousands of meals to sites across the district. 

Before health concerns prompted CHCCS to temporarily stop bus deliveries, Zito described his enthusiastic participation in a community-wide effort. “The overall attitude is definitely a team,” Zito had said. “There is definitely a giving of yourself so that everybody can remain safe and healthy.”

The team developed their own safe system of delivering meals. First, Zito drove his bus to Northside Elementary School, where meals are prepared. Keeping a distance from Zito and other drivers, volunteers loaded meals into the buses.  From there, Zito and a couple helpers set out on the bus to the first meal site. 

“We blow the horn to make the people aware that we’re there,” Zito recalled. “We park the bus and take the table out and set it up. We wipe down the table with some sanitation wipes, and then we put food out in boxes, and we step back. Families come to the table and take food, and they go off.”

In gloves and masks, Zito connected from a distance with his former passengers. “They might come up in pajamas, but they’re very happy to get food,” Zito said.  “And I’m very happy to be there to give it to them.”

On trips, Zito noticed how the community rallied around the Food for Students program.  His own wife made masks to share with other drivers. He even felt support from those who weren’t delivering meals.  “We stop at a particular site and there are people on bicycles or walking by,” Zito said. “They aren’t getting any food, but they’re saying ‘thank you’ to us. I think that’s wonderful.”

After delivering to two sites, Zito sanitized the entire bus. With every scrub, he hoped to protect CHCCS families, his own team and himself from invisibile traces of the coronavirus.  “We are risking our life to maintain something that’s really good and necessary to the community,” Zito said. 

Zito’s concern for safety was validated on April 21, when CHCCS found out that four employees tested positive for the virus. CHCCS released a message, announcing a temporary end to bus deliveries, and calling for direct meal deliveries by volunteers. 

“I have mixed emotions about it,” Zito said. “I’ll be home. But, what about the kids who need some food in their bellies?” Zito spent those weeks at home, Facetiming his two grandsons, both McDougle Elementary School students. He hopes the community he observed on his deliveries will rise to help out their neighbors, classmates and friends by donating or volunteering with Food for Students.

“I hope that those who have, help those who do not have,” Zito said. “I’m happy that there are volunteers who are willing to help out.” 

Since Eve Elliott last interviewed Zito, food deliveries have resumed, and drivers are back as major elements in Food for Students. On May 20, Zito was named CHCCS Transportation Employee of the Year.

Director of Transportation, Brad Johnson, praised Zito's calm demeanor and positive spirit which have made him a favorite among students, staff and parents, as well as a strong mentor and friend for other bus drivers.