Rock Region Metro wanted to send the right signal to the Pulaski County transit agency's newest bus and van drivers, streetcar operators and mechanics.
The agency held what is believed to be its first graduation ceremony for its latest front-line personnel Wednesday in front of staff and family members for what it calls its "new ambassadors."
The new hires are "critically important" to Rock Region's success, agency Executive Director Charles Frazier said after the ceremony.
"These are the people we are entrusting to safely operate our vehicles and provide great customer service," he said. "We need them to know how important that is. I [wanted] to congratulate them and celebrate them."
Six of the "ambassadors" are Rock Region's newest drivers, who already have begun spending shifts guiding a 20-ton, 35-foot long bus propelled by a 280-horsepower engine fueled with diesel or compressed natural gas through the streets of Little Rock, North Little Rock and other areas of Pulaski County.
It was a dream come true for 41-year-old Jannetta Brown.
"It's all I ever wanted to do," she said, framed certificate in hand and husband, Michael, on hand for the ceremony Wednesday morning in the training room of the agency's headquarters in North Little Rock.
Like the other bus and van drivers, she already had a commercial driver's license, one of the prerequisites for operating a bus on one of Rock Region's 21 regular and four express routes covering 51,000 miles weekly.
Brown said she first became acquainted with buses as a child whose mother relied on public transit to get around the city. She eventually acquired a commercial driver's license and drove school buses for the Little Rock district before she landed the job at Rock Region.
She and the other new drivers -- Courtney Brooks, Charles Dolphus, Keith James, James King and Diane Pride -- went through 60 hours of classroom training and spent 80 hours in behind-the-wheel training before they began carrying passengers for a living, said David Fowler, the safety and training coordinator for Rock Region.
"In that program, they learn how to drive our vehicles, learn our safety protocols as mandated by the Federal Transit Administration and also learn specific protocols," he said. "For example, all of these operators learn how to secure mobility devices, as all Metro vehicles are ADA-accessible."
ADA is the acronym for the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in areas such as employment, public accommodations and transportation.
Prospective drivers also must spend four 40-hour weeks carrying passengers under the watchful eye of a senior driver, Fowler said. They must drive each of Rock Region's routes at least once.
Mohamed Keita, 36, is the agency's newest paratransit driver. Links paratransit is a federally mandated transit program that has custom routes and focuses on people with disabilities who live too far from a regular bus stop.
He moved to Arkansas from New York City after he said his wife, Aicha, became smitten with the state while in Arkansas visiting a friend.
"She said, 'Come see,' Keita said. "I come. I love the state."
New York City was where Keita said he obtained his commercial driver's license and worked driving vans.
"Sometime I see the traffic here and people are complaining," he said. "In New York, you see real traffic."
Keita describes himself as a "public servant."
"I'll be able to take people that are disabled to work, to school, to a doctor's appointment," he said. "I love helping people."
Another new hire, Robert Keathley, will be a streetcar operator. He underwent an eight-week training program that included 240 hours of on-route operations training, six hours of classroom training and practical and written tests.
Fowler noted that Keathley "aced his [written] exam, scoring 100 percent."
Deric Williams will join the agency's maintenance section as a third-year trainee mechanic working on the third-level of a three-level program.
"The first level of the program concentrates on learning about transit vehicles through inspections and brake training; the second level concentrates on diagnosing, repairing and replacing air-conditioning equipment; and the third level concentrates on learning the electrical systems," Fowler said. "Trainees must take a written exam to pass to the next level. The first level also includes a hands-on exam."
He said Williams, "through hard work, was able to test out of the second-level program and advance directly to the third-level year."
Williams will be responsible for all weekend roadside assistance calls, Fowler said.
There were no cap or gowns for the graduates, but other elements of a graduation ceremony were present, including a keynote speaker, Margaret Ellibee, chancellor at the University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College.
Among her duties in her first job as a 23-year-old agriculture teacher at Stuttgart High School was driving a school bus, "a four-on-the-floor International Harvester" model, she told the graduates.
Frazier, who began leading the agency in June, plans to hold more graduation ceremonies. He will have the opportunity.
The agency hires about 45 people every year on average, according to Becca Green, public engagement director for Rock Region.
The agency has 105 positions for bus drivers, 25 for Links drivers and 10 for streetcar operators. It also employs 18 mechanics.
Frazier told his agency's newest employees that they should be proud to work for Rock Region.,
"We provide access to opportunity for our community," he said. "We provide opportunity to get to jobs, we provide opportunity to get to education. We provide opportunity to get to health, doctor's appointments, entertainment and all of the things that are important to our citizens."
He said he called them ambassadors because they are representing him, board members and the executive staff.
"Our customers, most of them are not going to meet me and most of them are not going to meet our board members, our executive committee, our union representatives," Frazier told them. "They're actually going to be meeting you."
In working with people, he said, "I try to respect them, to be courteous, kind. So when you're engaging with our riders, please, extend that same effort."
Metro on 09/20/2018