Kentucky School Driver ESP of the Year

Kevin Lock
When Helen Cottongim of Kentucky started driving a school bus in 1972, she earned $100 a month and parked her bus at her house.

“After two weeks, I decided that if there is any place to go with this – I’m going,” says Cottongim, who was named the 2010 NEA ESP of the Year Friday at the National ESP Conference in Las Vegas. “Today, I have arrived.”

Her “arrival” came with thunderous applause and a standing ovation as more than 1,100 conferees, state and NEA staff joined delegates from the Kentucky Education Association (KEA) in honoring Cottongim in the Sunset Room of the Flamingo Hotel.

The NEA ESP of the Year Award recognizes education support professionals (ESPs) for their contribution to their schools, communities, and education profession. The award includes an expense-paid trip to the next national ESP conference, $5,000 for the awardee, and $5,000 for a community project of the recipient’s choice. The winner serves as an ambassador for ESPs across the country, promoting the work of support professionals at national and state conferences.

“This is a very heartfelt honor,” said Cottongim, who will donate her $5,000 to the National Kidney Foundation, a choice of deep personal significance for Cottongim’s family.

“My son Jason was called to the hospital six years ago for dialysis,” Cottongim told the audience. “Monday, he will get a new kidney from my daughter, Regina.”

Cottongim said her prize money will help defer hospital and living costs for her daughter, who will be on unpaid leave for six weeks after surgery.

In addition to driving a bus, Cottongim is also a student transportation safety coordinator for the Boone County Board of Education. She is known not only for mentoring fellow drivers and conducting training sessions at conferences, but for her compassion toward students and community members.

“She is always the first to lend a hand to those in need,” says Sharron Oxendine, KEA president. “She often buys hats and gloves for students who ride her bus in winter. She supports food drives and homeless shelters, among other charities.”

As an ESP, Cottongim says she “never imagined that I would travel all over the U.S.,” during her two terms as an NEA board of director (1993-99), or discuss education issues with former Vice President Al Gore.

As one of the founders of the Kentucky Education Support Personnel Association (KESPA) in the mid-1980s, Cottongim was elected the organization’s first president.

“I believed that if we stood together, we could build a better work environment for school employees,” says Cottongim, now vice president of KESPA.

She has organized numerous ESP locals across the state, including her own, the Boone County Classified Employee Association, and has served six years on the KEA board of directors. She follows fellow KEA member Nancy Toombs as an ESP of the Year in 2006.

Though she has served as a UniServ director and lobbyist to the state legislature, it is her time behind the wheel of a bus that is her legacy.

“Her service to Boone County families has spanned three generations,” Oxendine says. “She continues to be invited to graduations and weddings.”

The ESP conference is designed to provide professional development opportunities for participants. Primarily, the workshops aim to help attendees gain skills needed to build strong locals, organize and recruit members, enhance relationships at school and in the community, and encourage their impact on student achievement. Of the approximately 2.8 million school support staff in the United States, about 507,000 are NEA members.