Saving The Circulator

Kids on bus

Community effort underway to keep the West Side Circulator rolling this summer and beyond

This article is from the May 2012 issue of The St. Paul Voice and is reprinted with permission. To view it, visit

Mary Diedrick Hansen

Staff Writer

As the West Side Circulator rumbles and revs its way through the streets of St. Paul’s West Side it carries with it the West Side’s most precious cargo, its children. They are transported to 13 stops along the route, from schools to neighborhood community centers and youth program sites where caring adults help them with homework and then watch over them as they play. At the end of the day the Circulator takes them home. With each trip the yellow school bus carries with it the spirit and soul of a neighborhood known for its diversity, from newly arrived immigrants to the mayor of St. Paul. West Siders come from all walks of life, backgrounds and economic situations and have a reputation for knowing how to work alongside each other and find ways to take care of “their own.”

The future of the Circulator is uncertain, however, and the program is in danger of being shut down. The three organizations that have been keeping the gas tank full — the McKnight Foundation, the United Way and Travelers Foundation — have given notice that they will no longer fund youth transportation.

Since its inception in 2003, the bus has provided 160,000 rides to kids in the neighborhood. It has cost $15,000 to run a full day schedule during the three months of summer, and about $30,000 for after-school transportation during the school year.

The West Side is adamant about keeping its neighborhood shuttle service going. Supporters say it’s vital to keep kids safe and busy after school and during the summer when many parents are working and unable to monitor their children’s activities.

When the issue of after-school activities was acknowledged as a priority a decade ago, organizations like the Boys & Girls Club, El Rio Vista Recreation Center, Riverview Library and Baker Center were eager to help but the roadblock to successful after-school and summer programs was transportation. That’s when the idea of a private bus service for West Side kids was formed.

Today, several local organizations are working together to find a way to keep the Circulator running, including Neighborhood House, Boys & Girls Club, St. Paul Parks and Recreation, Riverview Library, Youth Farm and Market Project, Torre de San Miguel Homes and West Side Community Organization (WSCO).

Derek Johnson of Baker Center said it looks like it will continue to run this summer, although supporters are still $6,000 short of their goal of $15,000. If businesses and individuals pool their resources to come up with $1,000, WSCO will match that amount. Displays are being set up at all the drop-off and pick-up points along the route asking for donations. Families that use the Circulator are being asked to make a donation in any amount.

Youth Farm and Market Project, which greatly relies on the Circulator during the summer to get its participants to and from its various locations in the neighborhood, will host a community dinner at the Wellstone Center 6:30-8 p.m., Friday, April 27. Proceeds will go toward keeping the Circulator moving through the neighborhood.

Once summer funding is under control, the focus will be on securing $30,000 for the school year.

There’s no question that the kids are concerned and so is “Miss Deb,” the bus driver and heart and soul of the operation. Miss Deb has been riding the route for four years and said she knows the names and faces of at least 500 people who have ridden the bus, as well as  those who live along the route. She honks at a man sitting on a lawn chair in his front yard. He waves. She pauses at a house and yells to a boy standing near his front door that his siblings are at the Rec Center. She keeps her eyes peeled for one of Jerebek’s Bakery’s regular customers who is usually sitting outside the shop as she drives by.

“I love the kids and love my job,” said Deb Stowe. Her warm smile, soft heart and motherly nature, which includes firm but caring reprimands to her young charges, seems to keep them safe and under control as she meanders her way through the community.

“I treat them with respect,” she said, explaining the kids’ good behavior on the bus, adding that the kids can’t pull anything over on her because she’s been there and knows all the tricks. She wants to help them succeed at school and to feel safe and special as she transports them around the neighborhood.

“I know where they live so if they fall asleep I can wake them up when they get close to home,” said Stowe. “I watch them until they get in the front door.”    

She also talks to them about keeping up with their homework and staying away from drugs.

She may, on occasion, customize the route a bit for her riders, especially if it’s 20 below zero and snow banks are up over their heads. In those cases she may veer off the route a bit to get the kids to their front doors. She’s been known to pick up the elderly at the Neighborhood House food shelf and take them home with their groceries. Sometimes mothers just getting off work will meet up with their kids at their after school program locations and they all ride home together.

Stowe’s love of the neighborhood extends to local sports, as well.

“I’m a big Hawks fan,” she said of the Humboldt High School teams.

She’s driven the girl’s basketball team from practice to supper at Burger King and back for a game. She took the football team to their end of the season banquet on Plato Boulevard. She gets lots of hugs from “my kids,” as she calls them. She never had any children and has taken the West Side children of all ages and colors under her wing as her own. She’s proud to say that she once met Mayor Chris Coleman, who rode the route and patted her on the back and told her she was famous.

“I may not be rich, but this job enriches me,” she says as she grabs the intercom mic. “Attention students, take a seat.  Sit down in back please. Let’s get moving.” The bus roars off to its next stop. 

Just as the heart pumps life-giving blood to all parts of  the body, it seems the West Side Circulator does the same as it moves through the neighborhood bringing with it a richer quality of life of its riders and their families.

For more information or to help keep the Circulator running, contact Derek Johnson at Baker Center, 651-209-3519 or John Guertin at 651-789-2517


Photo by James Ramsay,

Melissa Ehlers, behavior specialist at Cherokee Heights Elementary, keeps students organized and safe as they board the West Side Circulator. The Circulator transports students around the West Side after school and on school release days. According to Ehlers, an increasing number of kids are riding the bus.