Antwuan Hamm recalled a time he found his mother, Troyanna Hamm, sitting on the floor of her living room, surrounded by teddy bears, candy and pencils.
Troyanna, a 57-year-old Alachua County Public Schools bus driver, purchased the gifts out-of-pocket to reward local students from her bus route for their report cards, her 41-year-old son said. For each improved grade, a student would earn a goodie bag.
“You can get one bag, you get two bags, you get three bags, but the more you excelled and got better, the more she rewarded them,” he said. “The rewards and the treats increased, so they’d go from candy to some tickets to the movies.”
This year, students on Troyanna’s route will miss greeting “Ms. Hamm” or “Ms. Ann” on bus 1001 — and her quarterly report card goodies. Troyanna died from COVID-19 Aug. 2, with her family by her side, her son Antwuan said.
Tiana Williams, a 28-year-old Gainesville native, was one of the students who rode Troyanna’s bus on her way to J.J. Finley Elementary School. Williams remembered earning gifts in Troyanna’s goodie bags, which also included pencils, erasers and useful school supplies.
While she hasn’t seen Troyanna since middle school and now lives in Houston, she said she could never forget the woman who made her commute to school a highlight of her elementary years.
“You have the regular school bus driver, but she was more like the mother of school bus drivers,” Williams said.
According to Antwuan, Troyanna contracted COVID-19 from a fellow staff member — but wasn’t warned by ACPS or the transportation department that she was exposed to the virus, Antwuan said. He said that he, along with Troyanna, her wife, her nieces and nephews and her children, were failed by ACPS and the transportation department.
At a Tuesday school board meeting, Reginald Thomas, the director of transportation, said he contacted Troyanna’s family. According to Antwuan, he didn’t.
“He's never talked to me, period,” he said. “And for him to get in a school board meeting and have the audacity to lie to make himself look like he had this under control is not good.”
Director Reginald Thomas said he spoke with Troyanna’s son, Antwuan, and her wife.
He told The Alligator that while he didn’t know Troyanna personally, she always had a smile on her face and was generous to the children she served.
Many bus drivers are afraid, Thomas said. To combat their fears, his department will restock personal protective equipment and provide 200 to 300 static gowns a week as protective clothing.
Ridership capacity will also decrease by half, he added.
“I know that my ultimate goal is to ensure the safety of both employees and students that ride our buses,” Thomas said.
ACPS Spokesperson Jackie Johnson said Troyanna was the first transportation department employee to test positive for COVID-19.
The school board has a plan to protect students and employees in the Fall, Johnson said.
Buses will be equipped with hand sanitizer and face masks will be required, Johnson said. Social distancing will be enforced, and students who live in the same household will be asked to sit together.
To Johnson, Troyanna’s decision to work during the summer showed her unwavering commitment to the children she served.
“That's something that she didn't have to do,” Johnson said. “That's something that she chose to do, which just goes to show what kind of a work ethic she had.”
Troyanna drove ACPS buses for 27 years, Antwuan said. The students at A. Quinn Jones Center, some of whom suffer from behavioral issues, were especially close to Troyanna’s heart, he added.
“That was a part of her route she never wanted to ever give up because those children were the ones that needed the most help and the most love,” he said.
Before becoming a bus driver, Troyanna inspired children as a coach in the Gainesville Summer Playground Program, Antwuan said. From hitting home runs to shooting hoops, children idolized Troyanna, and she discovered her passion for shaping young minds.
While raising six children, Troyanna moved from Newberry to Gainesville and applied to be an ACPS bus driver, Antwuan said.
“She said, ‘If I think so much and want so much better for my children, I want to be able to instill that in every child that I come in contact with,’” he said. “Ever since the day she stepped on that school bus, she's made an impact on someone's child.”
Troyanna also suffered a great loss when Latroy McKenzy, one of her sons, died on Thanksgiving day in 2015.
However, her life-long faith kept her strong. Rosa Anderson, Troyanna’s long-time friend from Newberry, remembers praying and singing as music swelled from the piano keys Troyanna’s mother pressed in sync with the voices of the choir — sounds that enveloped the walls of Bethel AME Church. Troyanna’s mother, who has since passed, sat at the piano, guiding the choir as they sang.
Now 45, Anderson credits her faith to Troyanna.
“That impact as a child, relationship-wise, is the thing that keeps your faith together,” Anderson said. “Knowing that she believed in God is just a great thing.”
Anderson, a paraprofessional at Newberry High School, said she extended that role to the children on her bus route.
“They confided in her and she gave them the confidence to be able to build their relationships,” she said. “She was just a people person, and she built relationships and trust with them.”
Like the Hamm family, Anderson believes ACPS failed Troyanna.
“People, oftentimes, take bus drivers or personnel staff as if our jobs don't have a significant meaning,” she said. “But for a lot of the kids, the majority of the time, that's who they wake up and see first thing in the morning.”
Antwuan reflected on the sudden loss of his mother.
“I have been getting calls and texts and emails and Facebook messengers from people that were 5 years old when she was driving them on the bus,” he said. “They have taken those life experiences that she has taught them and her correcting them on their behaviors and their attitudes, and they have become better people.”
While she touched the lives of students across the country, perhaps the individual who learned the most from her was her son, Antwuan.
He said he’s used every day as an opportunity to grow using his mother’s wisdom.
“I tried to cipher and retract so much knowledge and strength from her, so I can be like her because I knew this day would come one day,” he said. “I didn’t expect it to come so soon, but I knew it was going to come one day. And I know I can take over for her, but I definitely cannot replace her.”