Last month we removed the “No Bus Passes” signs at the front desk at Portland Adult Education, and word-of-mouth traffic drove distribution of more than 500 DiriGo bus passes to students in less than one week. The need was urgent.

For years, students at University of Southern Maine, Southern Maine Community College and high school students in Portland have had Metro fare cards enabling free transportation. It took seven years for Portland Adult Education to arrive at this destination. Portland Adult Education students are the ultimate strivers, supporting families while working and going to school. These strivers are the engines of our hospitals, banks, companies and nonprofits. Why did it take so long to get here?

Adult students are experts in both patience and gratitude. Whenever I follow their lead, I learn, so let me reroute to focus on thanks.

In 2016, we began distributing 10-ride bus passes to students with disabilities, homes far from school and those with no budget for transit. An array of miracles made this possible. A USM philanthropy class voted to use funds for the cause. A Random Act of Kindness Group mailed a check and then sent a message weeks later, “Enclosed are 15 bus passes. I hope it helps a little.” Teacher Liana Wolk asked for bus fund donations as gifts when she got married. In 2017, Portland Adult Education teacher Arline Saturdayborn was surprised by her daughter at an all-staff meeting with the news that a birthday fundraiser garnered more than $2,000 for passes. So many good people have cared about students getting to school.

Five years ago, Oda Baho, a former adult education student then studying at USM, wrote an essay advocating for Portland Adult Education students to access buses as USM students did. While at Portland Adult Education, she had hauled her groceries on foot because she couldn’t pay for the bus. When she could finally afford her own transportation, she rode for free. It pained her to watch mothers carry babies on the street. Her advocacy sparked a meeting with Metro and administration from Portland Public Schools. Everyone agreed that Portland Adult Education students needed passes, but Metro was undergoing a transition to electronic fare cards, delaying action.

When school shifted online during the pandemic, transportation was no longer a barrier. I recently found seven of the 10-ride passes in my desk and felt terrible that they had gone unused – until I saw the expiration date: 3/31/2020. We had different problems in March 2020.


Last year, Friends of Portland Adult Education distributed more than 15,000 single-ride passes. Friends of PAE’s board chair regularly purchased and delivered single-ride passes to school. Students were back in the building, and we could not keep up with demand. PAE’s new director Abbie Yamamoto began negotiating anew for student fare cards. With a $20,000 grant for transportation in hand, her negotiations had traction, and PAE’s data and IT coordinator Yunus Ibrahim launched ID cards and school email addresses for students, a necessary precursor to syncing with the fare cards. More than 800 students now have bus cards.

Yamamoto built on the work of two prior superintendents, two directors and an assistant director, but the leaders were not alone. PAE staff honored the death of Arline Saturdayborn, as we had celebrated her birthday, by raising more money for student transportation. Office staff volunteered to master the software for the DiriGo cards and competed to distribute the largest number of cards.

Maybe things finally accelerated because PAE’s workforce program partnered with Metro to train drivers to get CDL permits. Friends of PAE’s volunteer treasurer got her commercial driver’s license to coach students. Five former students now work for Metro. One of them trained PAE staff to use the DiriGo cards. It’s a lovely feedback loop.

Will we have the funds to sustain these cards next year? That’s not clear. But the teacher whose wedding registry provided bus passes just wrote a guide for students new to English about using the bus. Our students will stay warm and boost Metro ridership through the long winter and spring. Let us idle at this light and offer thanks to all who powered this long bus ride.

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