One of a kind: A magic marker, message inspire Ames School District’s graffiti bus

Sara Knight, general manager at Durham School Services, shows the positive graffiti displayed inside a school bus. The Graffiti Bus will be used one day on each route in the Ames school district and is intended to uplift and encourage students.

It started with 11 words and a magic marker.

Technically, the graffiti on an Ames school bus constituted as vandalism, and when that day’s driver first saw it at the conclusion of her route, she sighed, knowing she had some cleaning to do.

But quiet moments can often make a loud impact.

“Then I read it,” said Sara Knight, general manager of Durham School Services, who was filling in for an absent driver that day.

The words plastered on the backside of the seat were rather uplifting, a far cry from the usual immature creations.

“It was this positive message: ‘Whenever you’re feeling down, remember, you’re one of a kind literally,’” Knight said. “There’s no way you can read a message like that and not feel encouraged.”

She cleaned off the graffiti, but the cogs of her imagination started to turn, wondering this random act of kindness could lead.

An uplifting message scrawled on the back of an Ames school bus inspired Sara Knight, general manager of Durham School Services, to create a Graffiti Bus full of positive comments for students.

The anonymous message sparked an uplifting project that’s impacting thousands of Ames students and dozens of Durham staff members.

Since finding that sweet vandalism on Nov. 2, 2021, Knight began expanding on the original graffiti by building a PowerPoint to get buy-in from school district leaders and her own staff members. She was hoping to create a safe space on her bus, a place to teach kids the benefit of togetherness.

The pitch was successful, spawning a wave of positivity through art. Knight got to work, transforming her school bus into a palace of comfort − opening the door to new avenue of creativity.

The original message, along with almost 100 more, have been colorfully and creatively designed on removable sheets of vinyl, which have been placed on the walls above the seats on one Ames school bus.

The graffiti was created almost exclusively by the staff of 72 employees at Durham in Ames.

“Some of them made multiple signs. Some of the people told me this was outside their norm,” Knight said with a laugh. “But everybody really believes in what we’re doing.

“We work here and we want to make a difference because we care, and there is just so much suffering that’s going on.”

Knight’s project bloomed from a tragic moment that still sticks with her, nearly a decade later.

The loss of student Connor Tharp inspired Knight to make a difference

Intense personal struggles can often be rather quiet. Knight found that out during a morning route back in 2014.

Connor Tharp, a local high school student, wasn’t waiting at his usual bus stop that day. He didn’t go to school, and was later reported missing. Then, Knight heard the news. Tharp had taken his own life.

The unexpected happen, and it shook the community.

Tharp was friendly and popular. He always offered her a greeting and a goodbye, Knight said. It took her by surprise, as well as many others who surrounded him.

“He was just genuinely kind to everyone,” Knight said. “I had no idea he was suffering, so it made me realize how many people honestly hide something they’re going through.”

Knight began driving school buses in 1996, rising to general manager in 2013. It wasn’t until year 18 that she realized her daily presence in many of her passenger’s lives could make a difference.

“(Tharp’s suicide) drastically affected me,” Knight said. “I wondered what I could have done in my role to put positivity into his life — or the lives of any of the kids I transport.”

It was time for her to take action, to help build others up, providing a safe space to and from school.

Sara Knight, general manager, and Russ Fulton, supervisor of safety and training at Durham School Services,  show the positive graffiti displayed inside a school bus that will transport students in the Ames school district.

Graffiti Bus will transport about 2,500 students before the end of the school year

The bus’ graffiti messages encourage kids to have pride in who are and to know they matter.

Bus drivers sought creative help from their young passengers, asking for specific messages and images they’d like to see represented.

Those pieces of graffiti are labeled with the group’s name. The words needed to be seen, not heard, to understand their full impact.

“I think it’s a great project,” said Russ Fulton, supervisor of safety and training at Durham School Services. “I have to credit Sara’s vision. I didn’t really get it at first, but when we finally started seeing all of the signs on the bus, I was just like, ‘Wow! This looks amazing!’”

The Graffiti Bus went into service two weeks ago, and every route in the Ames school district has been assigned one day with the bus, making it accessible to roughly 2,500 students.

The district has roughly 60 bus routes everyday. Each route will have a day where the Graffiti Bus will run in the morning and the afternoon.

“The goal was to touch every single life we transport,” Knight said. “So each bus has its day. It’s just working out flawlessly. It took a whole team to do this.

I just couldn’t be prouder of all my staff.”

Ronna Faaborg covers business, education and the arts for the Ames Tribune. Reach her at [email protected].

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