In the driver’s seat with an eye on God

First slide

Cathy Carroll's alarm goes off at 3:30 a.m. She gets dressed, does her makeup and makes breakfast. Then she walks into the early morning darkness to a large yellow bus parked near her Pomfret, Md., home. She checks the lights and makes sure everything is running smoothly. By 5:45 a.m. she's winding through neighborhoods picking up students, just as she's done for the past 20 years.

For her, the hours and miles on the road - rain or shine, fog or snow - are simply a response to a need. Ultimately, however, they are a labor of love - love of Catholic education, God and "her kids," what she calls every student who has stepped onto her bus.

The wheels start turning
It all started in 1992 when the all-girls La Reine High School in Suitland, Md., closed, and Carroll was looking throughout the Washington, D.C., area for another high school for her daughters.

During an open house at Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington, the late Al Burch, former O'Connell teacher, principal and coach, came up to her and asked what she thought of the school.

"It has a lot to offer," Carroll recalled telling Burch. "But I want to know how I'm going to get my kids to and from school every day."

The Carrolls lived in Temple Hills, Md., at the time and had a 2-year-old, an elementary-school student, a set of twins in high school and a La Reine graduate.

"If you get eight kids together, I'll get you a van," Burch said. "And find me a driver," he added.

When it came to making things happen, Carroll and Burch had met their match.

Three weeks later, Carroll had a van-load of kids who needed rides to O'Connell and St. Thomas More Cathedral School in Arlington, where she'd decided to send her grade-school-aged daughter.

Burch handed her the keys to a 15-passenger van.

Carroll said the reason she readily jumped into the driver's seat was simple.

"I wanted my kids to have the very best that was offered - and I wanted to offer that to any parent who wants to send their child to a Catholic school," she said.

Academic rigor is important, said Carroll, but so is being God-centered. "We lose so much when we don't have God in our life every day."

Frequent-driver miles
The years passed and she kept driving. The number of kids grew and the vehicles grew, too.

She moved from a 15-passenger to a 32-passenger. What started as a volunteer position became a new job.

When she learned laws were changing and a regulation-approved bus was required to transport children to school, Carroll obtained an approved 64-passenger bus, which required a special driver's license.

One by one her daughters graduated from O'Connell. Her youngest daughter graduated in 2009, and Carroll started working at the O'Connell Studies Office, but she kept driving students to and from O'Connell and St. Thomas More.

About every five years the school would get a new bus to ensure they always were up-to-date. After going through three 64-passenger buses, last year Carroll realized more seats were needed. Now she drives a 77-passenger bus, eight feet bigger than an average school bus and with a 100-gallon tank.

When she first started driving, there were no fees for parents, and even now, they are minimal. Carroll said she's very conscientious of the cost of Catholic education, so she does her best to keep costs down.

She does all the contracts, route mapping, fueling and maintenance.

Her route starts in Charles County then passes through Prince George's County. Four years ago, she added Virginia stops to her drive.

"Any place on the route that kids need a ride, I'll pick them up. I keep that bus rolling," she said.

A bend in the road
The days and miles rolled by. Then all at once, life came to a screeching halt.
About three years ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer and told she needed a bilateral mastectomy.

On a Monday, Carroll and her husband, Mike, sat in a hospital room for a pre-op the day before surgery.

Her cellphone rang. It was one of the twins, Gina.

"We've lost her! We've lost her!" said her daughter.

Slowly, Carroll absorbed what her traumatized child was telling her. Gina had found her twin sister dead at home.

Tina had been full of life, a happy wife and mother of an 18-month-old. The 31-year-old died of a rare genetic heart disease, arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia.

Carroll considered postponing surgery, but her family convinced her to proceed.

"You will have this surgery, Mom," Carroll recalls her oldest daughter, Kimberly, telling her. "We need you."

So on Tuesday, Carroll had the nine-hour surgery. She helped plan Tina's funeral while recovering in a hospital bed. That Friday, she buried her daughter.

Two weeks later, Carroll was behind the wheel.

She's always loved bringing students safely to school and back, and now she feels blessed by a job that's helped bring her through heartbreak.

"It has been great therapy for me. It takes my mind away from the sadness," she said.

In the face of loss, Carroll continues to embrace life.

And two years after her daughter's death, she cradled a very special life in her arms. Kimberly gave birth to her second child, Phoenix - named for the mythological bird that rises from his ashes - on the exact day her sister had died.

"God always has a plan," said Carroll.

Her own plans for the future will, at least for a while, include doing what she's done for two decades.

"I'll leave it up to God as to when I stop driving," she said.

For now, "I thank God I got another day to be with my kids."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2012