PORTLAND – As students were being dismissed for the holiday break Wednesday, Grace Cole pulled up to Hall Elementary School in bus No. 75.

Faith and Colin Longval, 8 and 6, respectively, were waiting anxiously with their mom for “Gracie” to arrive. They weren’t taking the bus Wednesday, but they knew Cole had something special for them.

“Here’s your winter gift,” Cole said to the children.

Grasping a small package wrapped in snowman-decorated paper, Faith glowed. She was even more excited as she shredded the paper to discover a pair of hand-knitted mittens inside.

Every child who rides Cole’s bus received a pair of the mittens Wednesday, cozy winter gear that Cole had been working on since July.

She calculated that if she averaged one mitten a day, she would knit 15 pairs a month and be ready to deliver 70 pairs to children in time for their winter break.

It’s a tradition of hers that she has upheld for 20 years.

When asked why she started knitting mittens all those years ago, she said, “Have you ever seen a child’s face when you give them a gift?”

Kevin Whittemore, assistant transportation director for Portland schools, said a number of bus drivers do something special for their students during the holiday season, but nothing quite as involved as Cole’s gifts.

“I’m sure (the mittens) keep their fingers warm, but more than keeping their fingers warm, it is the specialness of having something handmade just for them,” he said.

Cole has been driving children from the Stroudwater area of Portland to Hall Elementary School for much of her 25-year career.

When she started, she had three young children in Portland schools, and driving a bus was a “great way to be home with my children,” with weekends, holidays and summers off.

Kelly Hasson, Hall Elementary School’s principal, said Cole is “emblematic of all bus drivers.”

“She knows all the students on a first-name basis, and their parents,” she said. “They really care about their cargo. And it’s precious cargo.”

Jada Briley, 7, also stopped by Cole’s bus Wednesday to pick up her mittens before heading home with her mom, Antona Briley.

“She’s just amazing,” Antona Briley said of Cole.

Not only does Cole spend much of her year knitting mittens, she keeps a careful eye on the children’s coats when cold weather comes.

“I jot down the colors of their coats and match the colors for their mittens,” Cole said.

Each year, she said, she tells herself it is the last year she will hand out mittens. But each year, when she sees the children’s beaming smiles as she hands out the gifts, she just can’t resist doing it again.

Staff Writer Emma Bouthillette can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

[email protected]