Vanora Volk opened the door to her Vancouver Public Schools bus No. 73 on Thursday morning, smiled at her surprise and purred a welcome.
"Good morniiiing," she sang.
On the sidewalk in front of Minnehaha Elementary stood teachers, district officials, a horde of curious kids paying no mind that the bell was about to ring and the one former Portland Trail Blazer who denied her an autograph way back when.
More on that later, but let's get back to Volk and why the Blazers decided that she -- a gray-haired school bus driver who's known for wearing silly hats around her kids and telling dirty jokes around her motorcycle club -- has embodied the spirit of Damian Lillard's "Respect, Pass It On" program.
In March, the campaign began as a way to curb the serious problem that still plagues our schools and our society: bullying.
Anyone who took the online "Respect" pledge -- the vow to take responsibility for my opinions, to not tolerate harmful language, to apologize if my words have a harmful effect -- got a free T-shirt from the team.
Since then, the Blazers have received hundreds of letters. Some from as far away as Guam and Germany, but all making the pledge to respect. Within this pile, one message stood apart.
It's scribbled on a sheet of yellow legal pad paper. The handwriting's a bit sloppy and if you want to get picky, there's a misspelling where Volk requests her T-shirt size. Still, the words are heartfelt.
Volk identified herself as a school bus driver and promised share the message of "Respect" to as many people possible. She already "demands" that the kids on her morning and afternoon routes be Blazer fans, so why not encourage those riders to stand up against bullying, too?
"I have a really hard time with kids teasing other kids," said Volk, who has driven school buses for five years. "So, I tried to show to them that just saying mean things or bad things is bullying because it hurts. When you get hit (or) punched -- it hurts. But the hurt goes away. When you get bullied and teased, it hurts your heart and it doesn't go away too quickly."
In that letter, Volk mentioned the Gold Wing Road Riders Association to which she and her husband belong, and even wrote about her longtime Blazer love -- she declared herself as an "AVID" fan in capital letters. But she never once expressed why the program touched her so much.
See, Volk has a brother. Growing up, the little guy had a hearing problem that affected his speech and even the way he learned in school. In the small North Dakota town in which they were raised, special education just wasn't an option. So, her brother attended regular classes and was tormented to the point that he quit school.
Volk's easy laughter may seem like it may shatter the windshield when she describes how every Friday is Crazy Hat day on her bus. But when she recalls the bullying that her younger brother faced on a daily basis, her bombastic voice tempers to a whisper. Volk is 61 years old now, but time has not erased the painful memories.
"They didn't catch that he was hearing handicapped, so he got bullied and called retarded," Volk said, her tone softening even more as she muttered that ugly word. "It was horrible."
So this spring, she hopped on her home computer and printed off copies of the "Respect" pledge for her young riders. Volk read the pledge aloud and encouraged that each and every kid sign one.
"I'm surprised that the Respect campaign has touched so many lives," Lillard replied to The Columbian through an e-mail. "It just goes to show you how many people can relate and understand the movement. Vanora sounds like an amazing person and her actions show that she knows what a big deal this initiative is."
Lillard couldn't thank her personally -- he's in Ogden, Utah for an event -- but on Thursday, the Blazers sent a "surprise and delight" crew.
Volk immediately recognized one smiling face -- the one a small girl called "that big tall guy in the glasses." Jerome Kersey, the "surprise," walked onto the bus to express his appreciation.
Of course, Volk couldn't pass up teasing him about the time she attended an air show in the 1990s and approached Kersey for an autograph, but he apologized stating that the organizers didn't allow it. On Thursday, Kersey made up for it with plenty of pictures.
The team mascot, Blaze, handed out T-shirts and bracelets to squealing children -- that took care of the "delight" part.
When it was time for a group picture in front of the yellow Blue Bird, Volk chanted: "Bus 73 rocks!"
The riders may be too young to fully understand why it's important to respect one another. But every morning when Volk opens the bus door, they know that the No. 73 will be a fun and bully-free ride.
"The kids are the important ones, I'm just transportation," Volk said. "All these are my kids."