Helena Magazine

Miles of kindness: Julie Gray’s drive makes an exceptional difference

Published 9:04 am Wednesday, April 17, 2024

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By DONALD MOTTERN | Staff Writer

The sky is overcast with a slight hint of mist in the air as Julie Gray finishes unloading the back of her SUV. With a cool wind blowing across the field outside of Helena High School, it is the perfect day for a tailgate as long as the weather holds. At 10 a.m. sharp, and with a smile running across her face, she quickly swings the overhead door shut and in the same motion is already carrying a cooler and bucket of chips in her arms.

Gray is finishing up the final details on a table of refreshments for the students, all high schoolers, that are in the special needs program.

She starts her way across the sidewalk and then through the grass as she laughs and greets the students, who all call out in open excitement to greet Gray, or ‘Miss Julie’ as they all know here.

Most of them are in the midst of an impromptu football game, but one of the students, who is carrying several rubber bases and a softball, suggests that it is just the latest pastime to have made an appearance in the morning’s festivities.

Gray, who reaches the table with the help of one of the other students, places the cooler and chips by the table, brushes off her Crimson Tide jacket, and watches with laughter at the game playing out in front of her.

Gray does this with an air of experienced excitement, and it’s clear that this is not anywhere near the first time she’s taken part in an event like this. In fact, Gray has been with Helena High School from the very beginning and has helped organize gatherings like this for at least the past 15 years.

A journey of service

To the unaccustomed, it might surprise some to learn that Gray is not a teacher on staff, but has instead been a bus driver for nearly 30 years.

“I’m in my 28th year of driving,” she says as she organizes chips and lays out a fan of napkins. “I actually started at Oak Mountain Middle School for three years. All of my kids had started to school, so when my baby son started to school I decided to do something.”

After the three years at Oak Mountain, Gray and one of her good friends wanted routes in Helena, which had special needs routes available. Upon taking those positions and switching schools, the rest was history. Over the past 25 years, Gray has driven in Helena for Valley Intermediate then Riverchase and then she went to Helena Middle School upon its opening—where she drove for that school and Pelham High School for years.

When Helena High School opened 10 years ago, Gray took that as the opportunity to shift her focus entirely to the Helena community, a decision that also allowed her to follow many of her students that moved to Helena High School during the transition.

Gray now drives bus routes for Helena Middle and High schools and also runs a route for Falcon Flight, a continued education program in Montevallo that is for special needs students after high school graduation that can have participants until they age out at 21 years old.

Except for those that may move away or transfer, Gray sees many of her students at least twice each and every school day for nearly a decade. In that time, she has come to realize that she can grow attached to the students and can get emotional when it finally comes time to drop them off for the last time.

“I get them in sixth grade and then I can keep them for six or seven years,” She says. “You see a lot of growth over the years.”

Partially because of this, as well as her servant’s heart, her involvement and connection to the program and its students has done nothing but grow exponentially over the years.

Going above and beyond

As she details all of the activities that she is involved with in Helena’s special needs program, she conveniently, and with honest humility and humbleness, fails to detail how integral and involved she truly is.

While Gray mentions and talks about how the program supplies a bus for the students to attend their own prom, and that there is a fundraiser that helps raise money for it, she fails to mention how her and her husband are the ones who work for days to organize and pay for it.

“My mom actually does the fundraiser and my dad and her will stay up all night, for three or four days, where they organize the sale of Boston butts and hams,” said Kristin Underwood, Gray’s daughter and a teacher at Chelsea Park Elementary School. “My mom and dad are the ones who cook those. It takes weeks. She buys them at the lowest prices that she can. It’s a big deal to her, and she goes above and beyond to try and get them at the lowest price so that the kids end up with the most profit they can get.”

In fact, the teachers, who watch over the students and from time to time have to reign in the football game from moving too far toward the building, let it be known that Gray is the one who has historically provided for this annual tailgating event, something she still doesn’t take credit for.

“Julie is one of the most generous people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing,” says Chelsey Hosmer, a special education teacher at Helena High School. “She is very humble and never advertises the level of her involvement. For the fall tailgate and spring picnic, Julie provides all of the food and supplies for the events.”

Playing an integral role

Gray, an avid Alabama fan, holds a pack of both Auburn and Alabama football stickers in her hands, and before long, she is surrounded. She lets the students pick their favorite, and then carefully peels each sticker and applies them to the hats, shirts or faces of all who want them. As the clock hits 11:15 a.m. she quickly rushes back to her SUV, it’s time to go pick up the pizza, with which she is back with by 11:28.

She is completely in her element as she gloves up and joins Hosmer and several other teachers in serving out the day’s refreshments. Fitting with the day’s theme of a tailgate, each slice of pizza is served on either an Alabama or Auburn plate, a slight competition that the students love.

“She loves the kids on her bus and all of our students in the special education program so much and wants to help provide incredibly valuable experiences for them,” Hosmer says. “What she does goes above and beyond her duty of just driving the school bus. Our students love Julie so much and always ask to make sure that she is driving the bus on our field trips.  I honestly can’t say enough to fully express how much Julie means to all of us.”

As Gray tells her story and talks about her involvement with the program, she is consistently drawn back to her main focus—the students.

For every example of a field trip she lists, Gray cheers on the catch of a football and for every detail about her eight grandchildren she shares, Gray has a one-on-one moment with her students that come to greet and thank her for her help.

“I come once or twice every other week or so and drop by and see them,” Gray says as she takes out several sticker pads. “When we do field trips, we might have two field trips a week. A lot of them are work related, on the job experiences. I love the kids and doing this for them and we do a lot of fun things beside just driving the school bus. We go on field trips and have parties among other stuff.”

Leaving an impression

Gray’s involvement with the special needs program is leaps and bounds above what most would expect, and it has driven quite a few over the years to be inspired to follow suit. Gray has convinced multiple drivers over the years to make the switch from driving other routes to driving one of the special needs routes. With that being said, as Gray looks toward the milestone of a potential 30 years in her role as a bus driver, she is unsure if she will make it to that point.

“I’m probably on my way downhill,” she says while watching students sing and dance to the music that is now playing. “I think 28 years is a good but long time. I don’t know if I will do 30 years. That’s what my granddaughter told me, she said, ‘If you just stay two more years, I’ll be a senior and get to do this with us.’ I never thought that I would go past 25. I worked to go to 25 years and that’s all I thought I would do.”

Gray talks often about the place she and her husband have owned in Orange Beach since 2004 and how when the time comes, she would love to spend her retirement there, on the beach. But, even if she may be thinking about it, she never wants to completely rule out “just one more year.”

“She’s said she’s going to retire for the last four years and she has yet to do it,” Underwood said. “With her year ending in October, she’s always said that she’ll start the year and see where it goes, but once she starts again she doesn’t stop.”

Gray’s daughter went on to say that her mother can be very protective of the program and what it represents. Although she could have already retired, Gray appears to express a need to know that when she does decide to park her bus for the last time, that the driver taking her place will care as deeply as she does.

“She’s very protective,” Underwood says. “But even more, it’s going to be incredibly hard to replace her.”

When she does decide to retire, which Gray has left open for the future to decide, she will leave behind a program that she has helped shape, even if she would be the last one to tell you that. It is a legacy of caring and compassion that is sure to reflect on not just those who’ve had direct contact with Julie Gray, but for each person who has had the pleasure of meeting her.

“She doesn’t think of it that way,” Underwood said, “To her it’s just normal. In church and anything that she has ever done, she is always taking care of everybody. That’s just what she does, she doesn’t think of any of it as extra.”