Alachua County Public Schools has decided to put community needs over cash this October.
On October 28, a crowd of masked representatives from 40 Alachua County nonprofit organizations gathered at the Gainesville Raceway to pick up the keys to their newly won buses. Instead of auctioning off retired buses like it has done in the past, Alachua County Public Schools chose to donate a fleet of 40 used school buses to local charities.
Winners of the buses were selected Oct. 22 and 23 in a random drawing after submitting an application to verify their eligibility.
ACPS spokesperson Jackie Johnson said the decision was part of Operation Moving Forward, a plan constructed by ACPS to give back to the community in the wake of COVID-19.
“It’s kind of a play on words because obviously buses move children forward,” she said, “but it’s also a way to move these community organizations forward and let them do greater outreach and more effectively fulfill their missions.”
The idea was first introduced by ACPS Superintendent Karen Clarke, she said. She hoped the donated buses would give organizations that serve children and families a sense of relief during tough times.
Ultimately, ACPS hopes the program will facilitate learning and create new opportunities for children in Alachua County, Johnson said.
“A lot of these organizations, they serve either children directly or they serve families with children,” she said. “So, in one way or another, this benefits children.”
Johnson added that the response from the community was overwhelming, and organizations from as far as Tampa applied for the drawing. ACPS received close to 200 applications, with 150 of them being eligible to win.
Both winning and non-winning applicants expressed their gratitude, Johnson said. She mentioned some people at Wednesday’s event were so appreciative that they were brought to tears.
In July, ACPS retired a smaller fleet of 16 buses and auctioned off the vehicles for $16,703, she said. Despite the extra funds in the bank account, ACPS officials felt that there was a way to allow the buses to keep moving children, even after retirement.
“The superintendent felt that the value to the community was going to be much greater than that,” Johnson said.
Florida Wildlife Care Director Leslie Straub understands the value Johnson referenced.
Florida Wildlife Care does not have a permanent location, but the nonprofit organization serves 11 counties, rehabilitates injured or orphaned animals and educates Florida families, Straub said. She plans to use her new vehicle as an agent for education, calling it the Nature Discovery Bus.
Straub had a plan to put her organization on wheels for some time, she said, but did not expect the opportunity to come so soon.
“I envisioned the bus thing to be coming in the future, once we’re settled in,” she said. “But when this opportunity came up, I knew that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Straub said the new bus will help her organization expand its scope to other areas in Florida and will help to grow its educational services. Not only does she want to continue Florida Wildlife Care seminars at local schools, but she also dreams of developing curriculums for teachers to educate students about misunderstood creatures and local flora and fauna—all of which will involve her new yellow six-wheeler.
“We have live animals, our educational animals, with us,” she said. “It would be easier, for them, if we had something set up — if we have a roof over their heads.”
She hopes to specify her education programs, as well, she said. With the new bus, Florida Wildlife Care staff members can travel to hotspots for certain species and educate the locality’s public on how to protect and support their furry neighbors.
While COVID-19 shut down some services, Straub said Florida Wildlife Care experienced an increase in business but a decline in donations.
With people being home more, she believed they started to notice the needs of animals in their community and called the nonprofit for help. Some species also had early and extended breeding times during COVID-induced lockdown.
Nevertheless, the pandemic put a hold on other services offered by the wildlife organization. All educational seminars were cancelled, but Straub said the bus will help her team speed back on track when classes resume.
“It’s a very opportune time because we did have to cancel all of those programs,” she said. “Hopefully next year, we’ll be able to make up for it, and with the bus, that will make it a lot easier to do that and to expand our program quicker.”
Straub added that she appreciates Clarke prioritizing community, despite some ridiculing her decision online.
“She’s [Superintendent Clarke] right, when you give back to the nonprofits that really support the community, you have a much broader impact than auctioning off the buses and getting that small amount of money and then just putting it in the coffers,” she said. “So it’s just a big ‘thank you’ for realizing how important the nonprofits are and supporting us.”