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Communication key for special needs car driver

It takes communication, understanding and a whole lot of patience to do what Sheila Henderson has been doing for more than two decades.

Henderson is a special needs car driver for Halifax County Public Schools and has found herself transporting students to almost every school in and out of the county for almost 21 years.

Currently Henderson drives C33 for middle and high school and transports six students on regular, mid-day and night school routes.

“I love the closeness I have with the students…we bond. Having two boys of my own, I can pretty much handle anything,” said Henderson.

Before coming to work for the school system she worked at the Cluster Springs Post Office for six years. When she became pregnant and had her second son, she quit her job because she wanted to stay home with him. 

When her son was two and half years old, Henderson and her husband, Roger, began to realize he had a speech delay and placed him in the speech program at South of Dan Elementary School.

“When I went there with him, I was made aware of the special needs cars, and I got interested,” said Henderson.

She then applied for a job with the school system and was hired in Nov. 1992. She would soon take on the name, “Miss Sheila.”

“I just love my job,” she added.

Never to be the type of person to sit still, Henderson said she loves being on the go all the time. 

Halifax County is the third largest county in Virginia, and if it weren’t for her job, she wouldn’t have been able to see as much as she has, she added.

However, Henderson admits she is not a morning person. Her day begins at 5 a.m., and she is not a fan of her alarm clock.

Driving nearly 200 miles a day she doesn’t get home some days until after 6 p.m. 

As a special needs car driver, Henderson has to complete a “pre-trip inspection” including checking for low fluid levels and worn tires and is responsible for reporting anything she finds.

Since Henderson began her job 20 years ago, one of her main concerns always has been safety.

“Still to this day I am an overprotective mom. I still watch my students go into their houses, even my middle and high school students,” said Henderson.

She has to stay alert at all times and can never allow herself to become distracted by a student’s behavior.

At times she has found herself pulling over and coming to a complete stop to get a handle on a situation. She always goes to bed early when she knows she has to work the next day because “it helps me function,” said Henderson.

Reflecting on her two decades, she recalled some of her most memorable experiences. 

Currently she drives a deaf student, and he takes her hand and bends back her fingers in an effort to teach her sign language so the two can communicate. 

“I remember it was Valentine’s Day, and I had been sick, and I had mentioned to them earlier that week that I was sick. On Valentine’s Day one of my students gave me a Valentine’s card that read, ‘I hope you feel better.  You are the best car driver I have ever had.’ That showed me that they really care, it touched me,” said Henderson.

However, Henderson said she’d rather drive middle and high school students than the smaller students. 

“The preschoolers will have their shoes and socks off by the time you get to school, cry all the way, and they don’t tell you they are going to get sick. They just get sick,” she added. “They are much more intense.” 

In dealing with her job, she said she has had to realize each student is different and has needs. She tries to comfort them on their bad days by letting them know everyone has bad days. Henderson does her best to keep communication open between students and parents as well.

“Parents like to hear good stuff too. I always try to share good stuff with the parents because I think that means a lot to them,” she added.

Henderson doesn’t miss work much, and this year she hasn’t missed a single day. But like every job, it has its good and bad days.

“Ninety-five percent of them are good days,” said a smiling Henderson.

The tenured car driver has worked under two directors of transportation and one transportation coordinator.

“I’ve made a lot of good friends. There are some good people, especially the employees at the bus shop, transportation and the mechanics,” said Henderson.

She would like for the community to understand the special needs car drivers are not out joyriding, but are out working just as hard as other school employees.

“We have a lot of responsibility,” she added.

Henderson is quick to point out car drivers are at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to benefits, not being eligible for health benefits or retirement.

“I wish we could get it changed. After all, we pay taxes too,” she added.

But Henderson said she couldn’t imagine herself doing anything else. Through the years, she has made a lot of memories on the job and hopes to continue to make many more.

“The job has a special place in my heart,” Henderson concluded.

Henderson resides in Cluster Springs with her husband, Roger. They have two sons, Rodney and Justin, and one grandson.