Bus driver Terry Woods holds one-year-old Kash Bledsoe, one of his regular bus riders, at Salem-Keizer's Teen Parent Program (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Parents, students and colleagues nominated 53 local educators for Crystal Apple Awards this year. The award, given annually by the Salem-Keizer Education Foundation, recognizes staff who make a significant difference in the lives of children.

A dozen winners will be announced at an awards ceremony Thursday evening. Leading up to the event, Salem Reporter is profiling three nominees who work with students outside a classroom.

When a baby started crying on his bus, Terry Woods didn’t bat an eye.

“Kash, is that you?” the veteran bus driver cooed, looking in his rearview mirror. The one-year-old boy looked up from his car seat, where he’d been playing with a toy piano Woods loaned him, then appeared to calm down.

Woods has been driving buses for the Salem-Keizer School District for 20 years. As one of the most senior drivers on the force, he gets his pick of routes.

For him, it’s an easy choice: the district’s teen parent program, where he can be a cheerleader for high-schoolers navigating the added responsibility of raising a child.

“You’re on my bus, you’re one of my kids. And their kids are my grandchildren,” he said.

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Woods keeps a glove box full of what he calls “distractibles” on his bus: toys for kids like Kash to keep themselves occupied on the long rides from the Chemeketa Community College campus out to west Salem and beyond. There are car seats buckled on to the standard brown bus seats. As parents carry their kids off the bus, he hands them a snack.

He goes inside to walk students and their children out to his bus, stopping to say “hi” to babies and toddlers along the way.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, he picked up Kash Bledsoe and walked him over to a colorful bulletin board, talking to him about colors.

His mother, Ryele Bledsoe, said Woods is known across the program for the connections he builds with kids, whether they ride his bus or not.

“Kash would always reach out for him even when we had a different bus,” she said.

Terry Woods shows off the toys and stuffed animals he keeps in his bus for children of students in the Teen Parent Program (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Phillip Clark, a math teacher in the teen parent program nominated Woods for the award, with enthusiastic support from students.

Clark said Woods has helped create a culture shift for the daily bus rides. In prior years, students would often complain of social conflict and drama on the bus, but since Woods began driving, the morning and afternoon journey has become a “healthy, caring environment,” Clark said in his nominating letter.

“Terry is often holding a baby while a student rearranges her book bag to a diaper bag as she transitions from student to Mom. Young children reach out with raised arms, a true sign of trust, and are comforted by him,” Clark wrote.

Beatriz Perez, a 2019 teen parent graduate, said Woods made sure her three-year-old son, Aiden, felt comfortable riding the bus alone while she attended classes off campus at the district’s Career Technical Education Center. Woods brought toy cars for the boy and quickly went from an unknown presence in Perez’s life to a role model and friend.

“If it wasn’t for Terry I probably would have dropped out,” she wrote in a supporting letter. “He saw the potential I had even when I couldn’t see it in myself.”

When she was recognized with a district award for turning her academics around, Woods was the first staff member she invited to be there.

He often spends time outside of work helping his students and their kids, whether it’s volunteering at the teen parent daycare or selling pies as a fundraiser for the drumming program.

“None of my girls were selling pies this year so I didn’t get to help out,” he said.

Woods spent 12 years working at Fairview Training Center, a now-shuttered state-run facility for people with developmental disabilities, before coming to the district.

He worked several other jobs in the transportation department before “retiring” several years ago.

Now, driving bus 234 is his only job.

He drives a route for Whitaker Elementary School before his teen parent route, helping students with disabilities get home safely. His stepson has special needs and graduated from a special education program at Salem-Keizer. Woods said he enjoys helping other kids in special education.

He usually has time between his routes to stand in the hallway at the teen parent program and chat with students and their kids. After pulling in on a recent Tuesday afternoon, he talked with a student who’s eight months pregnant and planning to take a month off from school to raise her newborn.

“You’ve gotta come back so I can spoil that baby!” he told her. She smiled.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.