Kentucky Bus Driver, Organizer Receives 2010 ESP-of-the-Year Award
As a bus driver, organizer and advocate, Helen Cottongim has spent a career getting people where they need to go.
July 4, 2010
By Alain Jehlen
Winning the ESP-of-the-Year award was not the most important development this year in the life of Helen Cottongim, a bus driver from Kentucky.
That would be her son Jason receiving the gift of a kidney from her daughter Regina, just three days after the award last March.
With her children recovering well, Cottongim could enjoy the award: “It’s finally starting to sink in,” she told delegates.
Cottongim began her career as a school bus driver in 1972, when things were different: Her pay was $100. Her GPS was another driver standing in the well of her bus. And of course, she had no union.
Cottongim didn’t invent the GPS device but she had a great deal to do with changing her pay and her union status. She was a key organizer of the Kentucky Education Support Personnel Association, served as its president, and helped organize many of its locals. She designed her organization’s logo, with its motto, “Education Support Personnel are the backbone of education.”
She lived that slogan. “Oftentimes, [the children she drove] had to walk down to get to the main road in the wintertime and they did not have hats or gloves,” she said. “Some did not have lunch money or school supplies. But they knew they could come to me when they were in need.”
She urged delegates to stand strong in the face of new assaults on children and schools. “Today, we are faced with the old enemies that keep coming back to hurt us: not enough money to fund our school systems, poor health care, vanishing retirement benefits. Every time you turn on the TV, the news is bad,” she said. “We can not afford to rest. If you’re not already an Association addict, who cares about kids and public schools, you must become one.”
Helen Cottongim, 2010 ESP of the Year, addresses delegates at the 2010 NEA Representative Assembly.
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