They’d been looking forward to it for months: A thoughtfully planned field trip that would offer the young participants in Rural & Migrant Ministry’s Summer Overnight Leadership Camp a mid-week visit to a Connecticut ropes course, a beach and a library, as well as a fun evening hosted by a congregational ally. For the campers, who are primarily from rural and farmworking families across New York State, it was a rare excursion to places they would ordinarily never get to visit, a jewel in the crown that is Overnight Camp.
The Camp’s Program Director, Tara Thibault-Edmonds, and RMM’s Administrative Director, Sakima McClinton, worked hard to give the 8- to 17-year-old children a fantastic cultural and recreational adventure. Both meticulously organized, Thibault-Edmonds and McClinton saw to every detail: Tickets for 108 participants at It Adventure Ropes Course in New Haven, Conn.; an afternoon swim at Calf Pasture Beach in Norwalk, Conn.; a visit to the Norwalk Public Library for a Mexican folk-dance performance; and finally, dinner, more playtime and evening Vespers at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Bedford, NY.
Key to making it all happen was arranging transportation for the 73 campers and 35 counselors and staff members. Long beforehand, McClinton sought out pricing for two buses from several reputable charter companies, all of them tried and tested by RMM in the past. The low bid came in from US Coachways, which had provided buses for RMM’s Rural Women’s Assembly weekend as well as previous camp trips. McClinton reserved and paid for two buses for Aug. 23, for the full day of activities.
“We’ve used them many times,” McClinton said. “There’s never been a problem until now.”
Unbeknownst to McClinton, US Coachways had subcontracted the job, something it had never done on any of RMM’s previous trips. Although she confirmed the two buses the day before the field trip, on the morning of Aug. 23, only one bus — white and nondescript, with no company logo — arrived at Holmes Camp.
“We were told the second bus had been in an accident and wouldn’t be coming,” she said. The company also said it would not be sending another bus — a distressing development.
“We had tickets to activities, we were on a timed schedule,” McClinton said. “We had to scramble. It was stressful.”
Thibault-Edmonds knew she had to put the youngest children, who were required to ride in car seats, on the bus, along with the middle-school-age campers, and rode along with them. Meanwhile, she and McClinton mobilized RMM’s fleet of four passenger vans to transport the older campers and all of the staff members.
The bus ride throughout the day was tense, Thibault-Edmonds said. “The bus driver kept missing turns and getting lost, and he was very testy.”
After leaving the beach in Norwalk and heading to the library, the bus driver went so far off course that Thibault-Edmonds had to redirect him to skip the library and push on toward the church, their final activity of the day. They arrived at St. Matthew’s shortly after 5 p.m., in time for a warm welcome and dinner, and the campers had a ball — though McClinton and Thibault-Edmonds found it hard to relax after trying day of mishaps and ill will.
Then, Thibault-Edmonds said, “At around 6:30, someone taps me on the shoulder and says, ‘The bus driver needs to speak to you.’ I’m thinking, ‘What is this about?’
“He puts me on the phone and says, ‘You need to speak to my boss,’” she said. “The ‘boss’ never identified himself, but he told me the bus company would have to send another bus to finish the trip. He told me the bus driver needs to be with his family.”
The bus driver, in turn, asked Thibault-Edmonds twice if she’d called US Coachways to arrange for another bus. By this time, however, the evening had concluded and the children were climbing aboard the bus. The driver told Thibault-Edmonds to take the campers’ things off the bus.
“I told him, ‘We are not stranding 50 kids here,’” she said. “It was then he finally admitted the first bus that did not show up that morning had not been in an accident. None of that was true.”
US Coachways, the driver said, did not pay his company, and he had been ordered to leave without taking the children back to camp.
“I firmly believe that because he was an immigrant, too, and his boss was telling him what to do, he was stuck,” Thibault-Edmonds said. “I do have empathy for him. Who knows what they were telling him, or what they were threatening him with?”
On her third call with the bus driver’s boss, Thibault-Edmonds told him, “‘If that bus leaves, it’s theft of services and I am calling the police.’”
The Rev. Richard Witt, RMM’s Executive Director, stepped in forcefully, ordering one of the vans to block the bus from leaving; he also called the three other vans, which had already headed back to camp, to return to the church.
Witt, expecting that the bus company would call the police, asked the remaining parishioners if there was a lawyer in the parish.
“Yes, he lives next door and he was here for the dinner,” Witt was told.
With the bus blocked by RMM’s vans, the children left the hot, dark bus for the parish hall, where they were given an impromptu lesson in speaking up and organizing for justice.
Finally, over an hour later, perhaps after seeing pictures of the blocked bus, the company decided that they had indeed been paid and that it was okay to take the children back to camp.
The ordeal left everyone incredulous.
“You mean to tell me you were willing to leave us stranded with all these children because of money?” McClinton said later. “You were willing to leave tiny babies in the street over money? It was just very sad. It was very disheartening.”
Still, Thibault-Edmonds said, “We were in solidarity. We had each other and we knew it. I can’t imagine being in this situation with anyone but these people. I was just very proud of us.”