Joe Torres, shown here on his school bus wearing his Santa suit, is dedicated to paying it forward after facing a medical crisis.

LAGRANGE — When Arlington Central School District students step aboard CSEA member Joe Torres’s school bus each morning, he greets each child by name and with a smile.

The bus ride ends with a friendly farewell and good wishes for the school day.

“I know they need constant positive messages, and that’s what I try to convey,” said Torres, a two-year CSEA member who took on his current role after retiring from a career in banking.

While Torres is relatively new to his current occupation (aside from a brief stint as a New York City bus driver decades ago), he’s using his role as a bus driver to show his gratitude for the new lease on life he got a decade ago when he received a lifesaving surgery.

Miracle-working doctor

In August 2013, Torres began suffering neurological symptoms that led doctors to suspect a stroke, Bell’s Palsy, or Lyme Disease.

After meeting with a neurologist, Torres learned he had a rare form of a non-cancerous tumor on his brain stem that required surgery beyond the scope of what could be performed in Hudson Valley hospitals.

A referral to renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Guy McKhann II at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City confirmed the diagnosis and the need for immediate surgery. While the hospital’s surgical schedule was full, Dr. McKhann’s advocacy quickly secured Torres a place in the hospital’s operating room.

That advocacy was the difference between life or death for Torres.

“If I didn’t have surgery that day, I would probably be dead,” said Torres. “The tumor was embedded on my brain stem, which was bleeding and putting pressure on everything above my neck.”

Dr. McKhann’s advocacy didn’t just save Torres, but renewed Torres’s zeal for life and left him determined to advocate for others.

“When this happened, my son was entering high school,” said Torres. “I grew up never knowing my father, so I couldn’t understand or accept death and leaving my son. I received a gift and I can’t ever repay Dr. McKhann, but I can use that gift to help others. That’s why I do what I do.”

Paying it forward

Volunteerism was nothing new to Torres, who has always been active in his community, but his renewed health and interaction with the middle-school students he drives has helped him make a greater impact.

Last year, while new to the job, Torres approached co-workers April Crifo, Kathleen Maloney and Lori Pavlinsky to see if they would take part in a holiday toy drive. CSEA members based at the garage responded overwhelmingly, resulting in two carloads of toys donated to the Children’s Home of Poughkeepsie.

This year, they expanded their efforts beyond the garage, collecting even more and supporting two other local nonprofit organizations.

That’s not where the holiday cheer ended. While Torres lacks the rotund frame generally associated with Santa Claus, he agreed three years ago to step up as Saint Nick at a Dutchess County Office for the Aging event, with a local resident donating an old-fashioned Santa outfit.

This year, Torres incorporated his new day job into the mix, approaching the principal of Union Vale Middle School to ask if a few of the students on his bus route could accompany him on the holiday visit with senior citizens. Not only did the principal say yes, but she sent along members of the school’s fiddle club, with Santa Joe leading the way.

“I took six students from my regular route, but we wound up with almost two dozen in total,” said Torres.

Torres’s continued gratitude for Dr. McKhann and his enthusiasm for his new job got back to staff at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, who sent a camera crew to film Torres and the students as they spread holiday cheer to the seniors.

Torres has ideas for future outreach endeavors that include the school district, but in the meantime, he is just enjoying his second act.

“My best day in retail banking does not beat my worst day driving a school bus,” said Torres. “The perspective I go by is, every day we transport the world’s most precious resource, our children. At Arlington specifically, I’ve finally found my work family. It is by far the most fun job I’ve had.”

— Jessica Ladlee


About Author

Jessica Ladlee is the communications specialist for CSEA's Southern Region. A graduate of Boston University, Ladlee is an award-winning journalist who worked as a newspaper editor before joining the CSEA communications team in 2004. She is passionate about the opportunities unions provide for people to join the middle class, something her grandmother did as a Rockland County CSEA member over 50 years ago.

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