Cecilia Nation-Gardner had been a bus operator for less than a year on the morning of May 15, 2019 when she noticed a little boy walking in the street near the intersection of North 35th and West Vliet Streets.
“I honked the horn, but cars kept driving and no adult came to get him,” she said. “I stopped the bus and went into the middle of the intersection to try and stop traffic.”
The boy had difficulty communicating and at first Cecilia thought he might be speaking in a different language. She notified the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) dispatch operator and informed the operator of the situation and the police were summoned. Cecilia said the child was calm while they waited.
“After I arrived at my layover destination, I was met by a supervisor who said that I had done a good deed,” she said. “That’s when I learned that the child was six years old and autistic. My heart just dropped.”
This was not the only good deed that Cecilia performed during her first year as a bus operator with MCTS. Not long after helping reunite the young boy with his family, Cecilia was driving south on Kinnickinnic Avenue in Cudahy when she noticed a young girl in the median, unaccompanied by an adult and holding a blanket and her shoes in her hands.
“I pulled the bus to a stop a little behind her so she would not be startled and said, ‘Baby, where are you going’?” Cecilia said. “She said she was on her way to her mother’s. I asked her where her mother was and she said Georgia.”
Cecilia invited the girl who also happened to be six years old to wait on the bus while help was summoned.
“She was smart as a whip,” Cecilia recalled. The child was soon reunited with her family.
Cecilia was born and raised in El Dorado, Arkansas. She relocated to Milwaukee in 1993 and soon began driving a school bus. She harbored dreams about becoming an MCTS bus operator and went so far as to apply in 1995, but at the time her three children were still young and she did not have anyone who could help watch them after school. In between stints as a school bus driver, Cecilia worked at a facility that manufactured fire-resistant gloves primarily for firefighters, but when business was slow her hours were reduced.
“I decided I needed a better life for myself,” Cecilia said. “This is a career.”
Cecilia applied again to become an MCTS bus operator 18 months ago. After successfully undergoing interviews and a written test, Cecilia completed a rigorous, five-week training class and began transporting passengers on her own. Following her one-year anniversary, she was promoted to the “night extra board.”
During a shift, Cecilia said she will make between three and 12 round trips, depending on the length. MCTS buses do not have odometers in them, so she is unsure how many miles she drives per day.
When passengers come aboard, Cecilia said she always greets people cheerfully. Occasionally she will recognize a passenger she transported on a different route and when she does, she makes a special effort to greet the person.
For a number of years Cecilia played in a softball league and now competes in billiards and dart leagues during her free time.
Cecilia and her husband, Cedric, have a blended family which includes seven children: Sylvia, Chiquita, Robert, Darius, Nunciata, Zedric, and Tamiya, and three grandchildren. The couple attends Union Hill Missionary Baptist Church where Cecilia sings in the choir and serves as an usher.