Michele Bourdonnay was expecting to see the “bug man” standing at her door when her dogs began barking and the door bell rang at her home in Dacula on Monday morning.
That’s what her daughter had told her to expect, at least.
Rather than finding someone ready to do pest control, Bourdonnay instead opened her front door and found herself face-to-face with Rotary Club of Gwinnett President Terry Swaim, who was holding an oversized check for $500 with her name on it. Next to him was another Rotarian who was holding balloons and flowers for her as they recognized her contributions to the community.
Her daughter, it turns out, knew in advance about the recognition and told a little white lie to ensure her mother was home for the surprise visit.
“She told me some guy was coming here to check the lawn and the house, a new bug man or something — she was like, ‘You have to be there, get up early, get dressed like you’re going to work,’ “ Bourdonnay said while still in disbelief about the award. “I’m going to kill her.”
Bourdonnay received the visit, along with the balloons, flowers and a real check for $500, as this year’s Rotary Club of Gwinnett Hidden Hero Award winner.
The award is handed out by the club annually to a bus driver who goes above and beyond to help students and the broader community.
“They don’t get enough recognition for all that they do for the community,” Swaim said. “We want to recognize that.”
Traditionally, the award is given out at a meeting of the county’s bus drivers that is held at Hebron Baptist church in Dacula before the school year begins. Given that the COVID-19 novel coronavirus disease is going on, however, that meeting isn’t happening with everyone together at once, so the Rotarians opted to instead surprise Bourdonnay with an “Publishers Clearinghouse”-style presentation on her doorstep.
“We have to re-imagine it, so we cooked this up to surprise her and brighten her day and give her reward, a small token of our appreciation for all that she does with our kids and in the community,” Swaim said.
Bourdonnay, who is preparing to begin her third year as a bus driver for Gwinnett county Public Schools, drives all over the county each day to take special needs students as well as homeless students to and from their schools.
“I’ve learned my way around (Gwinnett County) that way,” she said.
Her son-in-law is in charge of missions at the Atlanta Dream Center and so Bourdonnay volunteers there. She works with people in need of assistance, such as homeless people and at-risk children, in Atlanta by praying with them, feeding them and providing them with clothing.
“There’s a need, and if people don’t do it, then who is going to fill that need,” Bourdonnay said. “I’m very fortunate. We have a house over our head. I’m not living in the street. I don’t have drug or alcohol problems. I don’t have to go out and worry about where I’m going to sleep at night. I don’t have to worry about my next meal.
“So, I think if you’re blessed, you need to go out and share that blessing with the less fortunate, and when you do that, you get back ten-fold every time.”
Bourdonnay is working on getting her teacher certification so she can become a teacher in Georgia. Before she became a bus driver for Gwinnett schools, she taught English, math and science to children in Abu Dhabi for seven years.
Although she could become a teacher here, Bourdonnay is torn because of how much she enjoys what she’s doing now.
“You get the same days off and I drive special needs and I really love my special needs children,” she said. “I get very close to their families, very close to them and so I’m kind of torn.
“I don’t know if I’m going to go back (to teaching) or not. It’s up in the air right now.”
Swaim said Bourdonnay was nominated by her co-workers and supervisors in Gwinnett County Public Schools’ transportation department.
“She was nominated ... not only for what she does on the job, but what she does in the community,” Swaim said. “She and her family go downtown to the Atlanta Dream Center and work with a lot of folks, handing out food. It’s just a number of different things. She just really shows the ideals that Rotary tries to promote: community service and service above self.”
Gwinnett County Public Schools Transportation Supervisor Darlene Cortiss-McGonagle said parents love having Bourdonnay as their kids bus driver. Many parents even request that she drive their children to and from school, the supervisor said.
Because her routes involve students who live all over the county, Bourdonnay’s day could begin a 4:30 a.m. and may not end until as late as 7 p.m., Cortiss-McGonagle said — although Bourdonnay does get a break between the morning and afternoon runs.
“She is a very caring driver,” Cortiss-McGonagle said. “She does a really good job. She cares about these children. She could go and teach, but she really loves working with our children. This is the first time she’s worked with special needs children and they’ve really become a part of her.”
But, Bourdonnay told the Rotarians and transportation department officials who showed up on her doorstep Monday morning that she didn’t feel the work she does, either as a driver or with ministry, is all that extraordinary.
As Swaim told her she had been chosen for the award, she gasped and asked if he was serious.
“I don’t do anything special, more than anyone else, I promise you, but thank you so much,” she said.
Swaim countered by saying, “You may not think you do anything special, but your peers, your community and everybody who knows you thinks you do. We are so grateful to you for leading by example and all that you do for our community.”