Graffiti Bus Messages is intended to inspire and uplift Ames students
I started with 11 magic words and signs.
Technically, the graffiti on a school bus in Ames was vandalism, and when that day’s driver first saw it at the end of its route, she sighed, knowing she had some cleanup to do.
But quiet moments often make a big impact.
“Then I read it,” said Sarah Knight, general manager of Durham School Services, which was making up for an absent driver that day.
The words affixed to the back of the seat were somewhat upscale, a far cry from the usual immature creations.
“That positive message was: ‘Whenever you feel down, remember, you are literally one of a kind,’” Knight said. “There’s no way you can read a message like that and not feel encouraged.”
She cleaned up the graffiti, but the gears of her imagination began to turn, wondering what such a random act of kindness could lead to.
The anonymous letter sparked a high-profile project that affected thousands of Ames students and dozens of Durham employees.
Since discovering this cute vandalism on November 2, 2021, Knight has begun expanding on the original graffiti by creating a PowerPoint to gain support from school district leaders and staff. She hoped to create a safe space on their bus, a place to teach children the benefit of teamwork.
The pitch was a success, sending a wave of positivity through the art. Knight set to work, turning her school bus into a palace of rest – and opening the door to a new avenue of creativity.
The original message, along with nearly 100 others, was designed brightly and creatively on removable vinyl panels, which were applied to the walls above the seats on one Ames school bus.
Graffiti was created almost exclusively by 72 Durham employees at Ames.
Some of them put multiple tags. “Some people told me it was out of the ordinary,” Knight said with a laugh. “But everyone really believes in what we do.
“We work here and we want to make a difference because we care, and there’s a lot of suffering going on.”
Project Knight blossomed from a tragic moment that it’s still stuck with, nearly a decade later.
The loss of student Connor Tharp inspired Knight to make a difference
Often intense personal struggles are rather quiet. Knight discovered this during his morning commute in 2014.
Conor Tharp, a local high school student, wasn’t waiting at his usual bus stop that day. He did not attend school, and was later reported missing. Then Knight heard the news. Tharp committed suicide himself.
The unexpected happens, and it rocks society.
Tharp was friendly and popular. Knight said he always said goodbye to her. It surprised her, as well as many of the other people who surrounded him.
“He was really nice to everyone. I had no idea he was suffering, so it made me realize how many people honestly hide something they’re going through,” Knight said.
Knight began driving school buses in 1996, and was promoted to general manager in 2013. It wasn’t until 18 that she realized her daily presence in the many lives of her passengers could make a difference.
Knight said, “(Tharp’s suicide) affected me tremendously. I wondered what I could have done in my role to put positivity into his life — or the lives of any of the children I’m transporting.”
It’s time to take action, to help build others, and to provide a safe space to and from school.
The Graffiti Bus will transport about 2,500 students before the end of the school year
Graffiti messages on the bus encourage children to be proud of who they are and to know their worth.
Bus drivers sought creative help from their young passengers, asking for specific messages and images they would like to see represented.
These pieces of graffiti are labeled with the name of the group. The words needed to be seen, not heard, to understand their full impact.
“I think it’s a great project,” said Ross Fulton, Durham School Services’ Safety and Training Supervisor. “I have to give Sarah credit. I didn’t really get it at first, but when we finally started seeing all the signs on the bus, I was like, ‘Wow! This looks amazing! “
The Graffiti Bus went into service two weeks ago, and one day the bus was assigned to every route in the Ames school district, making it accessible to nearly 2,500 students.
The region has approximately 60 bus routes each day. Each route will have a day when the graffiti bus will run in the morning and afternoon.
“The goal was to touch every life we pass on,” Knight said. “So every bus has its day. It’s just a flawless job. It took a whole team to do it.
I just couldn’t be more proud of the entire staff. “
Rhona Faaborg covers business, education and the arts for the Ames Tribune. You can reach her at [email protected].