Gina Hunter sails through the gates of the Marana Unified School District's bus barn on her motorcycle, slowing just long enough to heave her backpack in front of the yellow school bus she drives for a living.

She rushes on to the office to grab her keys and paperwork, then runs back to load the backpack on her bus before heading off for another day of ferrying children down the rural back roads of Marana and Avra Valley.

It's usually the backpack on the asphalt that allows her coworkers to know she's arrived for work.

"Is Gina's bag in front of her bus? There's someone here that wants to talk to her," says Karen Balmain, a clerk in MUSD's transportation department.

"I saw her bag as I came in," replies one of the drivers, almost all of whom are women, who are chatting and milling about the small office before beginning their bus routes.

Hunter slings her bag in front of her bus each work day because she's in a hurry. Her life it seems, is a flurry of motion shadowed by a great deal of hardship.

In addition to her job delivering Marana Middle School students to and from their education, she's also a full-time student and a single mother struggling to raise two children in a mobile home with no heat, a leaking water heater, and a roof in need of patching.

An estimated 90 percent of the 120 bus drivers who work for MUSD are women, said Sandra Pessina, a supervisor in the district's transportation department.

'I think the main reason why so many of the employees are women is that their work schedules mesh with the school schedules of their children," Pessina said.

And many of those drivers, like Hunter, are single mothers struggling to provide for themselves and their children on the $200 to $300 per week they receive each week after taxes and health insurance costs have been deducted. Full-time bus drivers at MUSD generally work only during the nine months of the school year, with the hourly pay prorated-over twelve months to provide a year-round income.

The wage in Marana for bus drivers begins at $8.16 for new hires, rising 20 cents after the first 90 days.

December can be a particularly painful and hollow time for some of the mothers who drive busses for MUSD. Buying presents for children on the sustenance wages they earn is difficult

In the past, the school district selected some of the neediest drivers and "adopted" them by providing food and presents during the holidays.

This year, resources are tight and a district administrator who had organized the holiday sharing program in the past took a job in another district. Other district employees have stepped up and tried to fill the void, but many of the mothers are still facing a meager Christmas.

In response, the drivers and other employees of MUSD's transportation department have begun trying to help each other by soliciting donations from just about anyplace they can.

It's a difficult and noble enterprise - employees with limited resources helping their coworkers who have even less. So far, they've acquired very little to fill the large need.

"We've lined up a handful of sponsors and we got a $15 gift certificate from the people at Kmart," said Balmain, who along with bus driver Linda Warnes, is the driving force behind the program. "The gift certificate is definitely appreciated, but it's going to be hard to stretch $15 for even one kid."

Almost as soon as those words left Balmain's lips, she rushed from her desk to greet one of the luckier mothers arriving for work.

"Honey! the people from El Paso Natural Gas called and said they want to adopt you and your kids again this year!" Balmain told the completely surprised and overwhelmed driver. The woman wept quietly as Balmain held her.

Hunter, according to her co-workers, could also use some help during the holidays. In addition to a few presents for her kids, an electrician for her heater and a mechanic for her truck would probably be the greatest gifts of all.

She and her children lived in a travel trailer with a pop-up tent before she traded it for the leaky mobile home they now live in.

Hunter has been slowly transforming the once decrepit and abandoned trailer into a home, renovating and repairing it by reading do-it-yourself books and relying on the advice of hardware store clerks.

Although Hunter prides herself on her repair skills, the wiring of the much-needed heater and the installation of the alternator for her truck have been frustrating, she said. She's been trying to make do with a space heater and the Honda.

Hunter, 32, attends the University of Arizona full time, paying her way through school on the veteran's benefit she accrued from her service in the Air Force. She's studying psychology and hopes to graduate from transporting young bodies to cultivating young minds by becoming a teacher.

She rides the Honda everywhere she goes, including her 50-mile round trip on Interstate 10 between Marana and the U of A, because her dilapidated, 22-year-old Ford truck broke down a few weeks ago - just in time for the recent cold snap.

"I think that's what really brought my situation to the the attention of the other employees. I was so cold when I rode in for work, I just went in to the office and curled up in the corner. I just couldn't stop shivering. It felt like I hadn't been warm for days," Hunter said.

She'll be the first one to tell you that she loves her job. Her coworkers describe her as a model of up-by-the-boot-strap pluck who would also be the last to ever ask for help.

"She's just too proud," said Balmain.

"She is one of the most wonderful people you would ever want to meet and one of the hardest workers. She's got it tough, but she never complains."

Hunter, who is divorced and receives no child support, depends on her bus driving job and $86 in food stamps to care for herself, her 8-year-old son and her daughter, who is 11. She has worked for MUSD for three years and is a senior at the UA.

Her day usually begins around 4 a.m. when she tries to get a little studying in before getting her kids ready for school. Then she's blowing through the cold on the Honda to get from her home in Picture Rocks to the bus barn at Grier Road near Interstate 10 by 5:45 to begin her first route.

"I generally have a 15 minute period before I start my second route and I'll sit on the bus and do a little studying," Hunter said.

After her morning cargo is transported noisily and safely to school, Hunter is back on the Honda to reach her classes at the university by 11 a.m.

"I just go as fast as can on the freeway. I'm often about five minutes late, but my professors seem to understand," she said.

A few hours later, she's buzzing back-up I-10 to Marana to toss her backpack in front of her bus again before beginning her afternoon route.

After work, her time is spent on rehabing the trailer, housework and overseeing her children's homework.

Hunter's daughter has been accepted into the the gifted program at the MUSD intermediate school she attends. Her son has been struggling with his classes lately, and a great deal of Hunter's evenings are now spent overseeing his homework.

"I love my job because I love children. I really wanted to work as aide with the special needs kids, but I just can't afford the pay cut. They make even less than bus drivers," said Hunter.

"It's tough sometimes, but a lot of people have it tougher. But I know I'll be a teacher some day, and things are going to be a lot better for my kids and I."

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