Heroes Among Us

School Bus Driver Tanya Walters Takes Inner City Kids on Life-Changing Road Trips

06/27/2013 at 04:30 PM EDT

Los Angeles School Bus Driver Takes Students on Life-Changing Road Trips
Tanya Walters (in blue) with students, from left: Lakeisha Wheeler, Jose Rivera, staff member Stacia Robinson, Lewayne Wright, Anthony Seay, Joshua Savage
Courtesy Tanya Walters
When a dedicated school bus driver decided to take kids on a roadtrip outside their usual route, she quickly found out that the new view gave them new perspective – and that she could change their lives forever.

Tanya Walters, a school bus driver from Los Angeles Unified School District for 22 years, saw a distinct difference in her students when she took them on their first road trip over spring break and they left their inner city Los Angeles neighborhood. She took them only 25 miles west, to a marina to learn about marine life, but she watched their eyes widen and their spirits lift.

"They were being exposed to different people, a different place, different backgrounds, and all they did was go from one neighborhood to the next," says Walters.

Through her Godparents Youth Organization, which Walters, 44, founded in 2002, she started talking to students about their grades, got to know them, and formed a connection that has lasted for years.

"I asked them to write down where they wanted to go in life if money wasn’t an issue, and they all picked typical places like Las Vegas, or an amusement park," says Walters.

So, once a year since 2006, she's been taking high school students on a 30-day bus trip around the country, visiting 28 states along with 26 college and universities. In total, she's taken about 200 students on road trips.

School Bus Driver Tanya Walters Takes Inner City Kids on Life-Changing Road Trips| Heroes Among Us, Good Deeds, Real Heroes

Natasha Montaque at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

Tanya Walters

"I started thinking about the trips I went on when I was younger and the impact it has made on my life," says says Walters, a widowed mom to 19-year-old son Larry, who is studying to be a massage therapist. "If these students never visit a college campus how are they supposed to talk about a college campus? I want to create references for them."

Today, over 90 percent of the students who have traveled with Walters have gone on to college. Their report cards went from being something they hid to something they proudly show off.

Former road-tripper Donovan Kilgore, 22, was 16-years-old when he went cross-country with Walters and 20 other kids from similar backgrounds. He was smart, but unfocused.

"After that trip, I was ready to take on the world," says Kilgore. "I didn't end up doing that, but even today I look back at that trip when I need inspiration."

Kilgore saw so many motivated students that it encouraged him to go home and get good grades. Now he is attending Los Angeles Film School, a career goal he made back when he was on the road, as well taking on the role as executive administrator for a student organization called the League of Heroes.

Celina Hazel, 21, says her friends sometimes don't believe her when she talks her trip with Walters.

"It's unbelievable what I was able to do and see at such a young age," says Hazel. Living in what she describes as a "tough home with an abusive father" she says that the trip made her focus on her studies when she returned to LA.

"I want to go back to New York City," she says, "And I want to go to Brazil, Costa Rica, Cancun."

Inspiring kids to think outside their neighborhood and realize the entire world is open to them, that they can go anywhere is worth every mile she drives each year, she says.

"I do this for the kids," says Walters. "It's internal. This trip is something that no one can ever take away from them."



Know a hero? Send suggestions to heroesamongus@peoplemag.com. For more inspiring stories, read the latest issue of PEOPLE magazine

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