The first thing anybody notices, looking through the windshield of the 1985-model bus, is the driver’s head barely sticks up over the steering wheel. Surely a kid has stolen the bus. Call a cop.
Wait. The second thing you see is the bald head. This is no kid. Then the smile. Ronnie Aiton’s smile does not cease.
Except when he is crying. And Aiton does tear up, he does break down, when he talks about why he drives the bus, and has for 10 years with an anniversary this week.
This former General Tire factory worker and dirt track car driver – a rough-and-tumble mill hill kid 61 years old and going bald, all 5 feet 4 of him and that is a stretch – gets emotional when he talks about why he has a small fleet of four former school buses.
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He cries when he says that the buses are maintained by mechanics at area shops who give him free labor and refuse to take payment for parts.
The older-model buses have one purpose: Aiton picks up kids and takes them to church. Churches, plural. He picks up the kids at home and he takes them home afterward.
“God told me to do it,” Aiton said. “Jesus told me to drive the bus. That’s why on the first anniversary of September the 11th, in 2002, I picked up the first set of six kids in an old heap of a station wagon. I called it Kids4Jesus, because that’s what it was.”
Over the years, Aiton prayed and picked up kids.
“It’s OK,” Aiton told everybody, in his signature saying. He said it hundreds of times a day and still does. His wife of 35 years, Brenda, has been right there with him from the beginning.
“This is what he was meant to do,” said Brenda Aiton. “Help kids. He just kept going and going. He hasn’t stopped going.”
People around Rock Hill heard about this new ministry years ago – this tiny guy picking up kids and taking them to churches for services, then driving them home. Donations came in $20 at a time or a tank of gas – then even buses were donated.
The formula is simple. Take kids to youth services, feed them, give shoes if the feet are bare. The kids were white and black and Hispanic, almost always poor – and Ronnie Aiton didn’t care one bit.
“Those are the kids that need a way to Jesus and a way to those people out here who show that those children matter, and I am the driver to get them there,” Aiton said. “I’m the ‘Bus Man.’ I drive for Jesus. Nothin’ much else to it. Some call me the ‘Bus Driver for Jesus.’ It’s OK.”
The ministry has evolved to many runs on weekdays and weekends for individual churches, and include Thursday night services at Eastside Baptist Church’s family center that handles up to as many as 150 children.
Volunteers from 10 area churches, ministers and lay people pitch in with teaching and lessons after Aiton picks the kids up. Aiton then drives the kids home.
Dave Roth, a pastor at the York Baptist Association who has worked with Aiton for a few years, said the magic of Aiton’s bus ministry is that it transports children to and from home in a showing of love.
Many of the kids used to live at Midtown Apartments, where Aiton would pick them up. When the apartments were torn down a couple of years ago, and the kids were scattered to new homes, Aiton went where the kids moved and picked them up still.
“These are children that without a ride would have no way to services,” Roth said.
Linda Dukes – nicknamed “The Warden” because she is as serious as any jailer at Thursday night sessions if kids start to get loud – started volunteering after seeing the ministry first hand.
“Ronnie Aiton just started doing this, and it has grown because he refuses to stop and the Lord has shown him the way,” Dukes said. “He is an inspiration to all of us who help with it.
“Without him, it would not exist. Ronnie Aiton, the Bus Man, is unstoppable.”
Aiton, an ordained pastor himself says simply, “My church moves – it’s a bus.”
All the money comes from donations, sponsors, wallets and purses and pockets of those who know the ministry and strangers who stop the bus driver and press $20 or $50 into Aiton’s hand. Keeping the buses rolling costs as much as $2,000 a month for fuel, plus almost $4,000 a year for insurance.
Aiton figures in the past 10 years he has driven at least a quarter-million miles on the buses. He has a few other volunteer drivers, but Aiton logs most of the miles himself.
This bus stops in the toughest neighborhoods. It stops in mobile home parks that have no pavement and candles flickering not for style, but light. It picks up kids who live in motel rooms with struggling families.
A few times the bus has dropped off kids to flashing lights and sirens of neighbors, even family members, being led off in ambulances or handcuffs.
Aiton waves off any concern, tells the kids he will be back the next time and that Jesus loves them all, then heads to the next stop.
“I get three young’uns to the gallon is how I figure it,” Aiton said. “I can’t worry about what it costs. There are kids out here got no shoes, they got no hope. They got to know that there are people out here who will give them the one thing that nobody can take from them – Jesus.”
On Saturday at Oakdale Baptist Church, a church that has been so generous to Aiton over the years, every kid who ever rode the bus with Ronnie Aiton is invited to a 10-year anniversary service. It is being called a “homecoming” for the kids.
Kids will sing. Kids will cheer. Ronnie Aiton will stand, a giant barely over 5 feet tall, and he will say “It’s OK.”
Then he will pack all those kids into the bus. The rules on the bus are strict and posted. “The Bus Man” is no pushover and these riders are not angels.
“They are kids,” Aiton said, “and what kids need is to know that people care about them.”
Then Aiton will close the bus door. Not for a lecture. Or even a sermon.
The door has to shut so Ronnie Aiton can drive all those kids home.