Along with her school books, 11-year-old Isabella Pieri always packs a sturdy comb and brush for her bus ride to school in the Alpine School District of Salt Lake City, Utah.
She will smile at bus driver Tracy Dean as she boards. She then takes her seat, anxiously anticipating what has become a morning ritual at the end of the ride.
In the school parking lot after the last student has stepped off the bus, Isabella will hand over her comb and brush to Dean, so the driver can begin braiding her hair. Dean says she makes it a point to set apart extra time each morning to help Isabella look her best.
“It just breaks my heart for the little girl and it makes me feel like I’m not just surviving for my husband and my own children, but to also help these kids,” Dean says.
Overcoming Adversity to Help Others
The morning routine started when Dean noticed that Isabella seemed to always have the same bedhead ponytail and somewhat somber attitude.
“I just thought, well, I’m going to talk to her and be her friend, buddy, big sister, or whatever I can be to let her know that I’m here for her,” says Dean, 47.
As fate would have it, Isabella noticed Dean fixing one of her classmate’s braids. She mustered up the courage to ask Dean if she could get her hair done too.
Tracy’s response: “Yes! I would love to. Just make sure it’s okay with your dad. I don’t want to step on any toes.”
Eventually, Dean learned that Isabella’s mother had passed away in 2016 from a rare illness and that her father, Phillip Pieri, has to leave for work early in the morning.
“Originally, I just gave her a crew cut because I didn’t know how to … get the tangles out,” Pieri told a reporter from local station KSL-TV.
Dean herself was coping with her own struggle as a seven-year survivor of breast cancer.
The media learned of Dean’s good deed, and after several television and newspaper reports appeared across Utah, the story went viral. Within days, Dean was receiving letters of appreciation from faraway cities in China, Australia, England, Ireland, and other countries.
“[The international response] just makes me smile from ear to ear,” says Dean, a member of the Alpine Education Support Professionals Association and Utah School Employees Association (USEA). “It has been amazing that [the story] has gone so far.”
While fixing Isabella’s and another student’s hair each morning, Dean and the children share accounts of what they did in class, after school, and even over the weekend.
One of Isabella’s teachers, LeeAnn Freeze, says she has noticed a bigger smile, brighter eyes, and stronger laughter from Isabella since she started getting her hair braided.
One day, when Freeze asked who was braiding her so skillfully, Isabella responded, “My angel bus driver.”
Phillip Pieri also noticed a confidence boost in Isabella.
“I was amazed,” he says. “Tracy didn’t have to step up, but she did.”
Dean has taken it a step further by visiting the Pieri home to show Isabella how to properly wash her hair and maintain good hygiene.
“You just never know what [the students] going through, and you shouldn’t be quick to judge,” Dean says. “It may be their way of reaching out for a friend or for help.”