Angel Bus founder Bill Connor used his passion for motor coaching to create a transportation network for those in need.
By Doug Uhlenbrock
It doesn’t take much prodding to get Bill Connor, F231330, to talk about Angel Bus, the nonprofit organization that provides non-emergency ground transportation to children in need of medical care. In fact, judging by his enthusiasm, you might think that when he founded Angel Bus a little more than two years ago, it was the culmination of a lifelong dream. Actually, the inspiration for Angel Bus wasn’t by design, but rather the result of a defining detour that changed his view about the world and his place in it.
In January 1999, Mr. Connor’s life was moving along according to plan. He was a successful banker, living with his second wife, Nola, in Dell Rapids, South Dakota, a northern suburb of Sioux Falls. He had just started his own charter bus company, The Private Coach, and was in the midst of publishing the first issue of The Private Coach Enthusiast, C8555, a magazine for coach conversion owners and others interested in such vehicles.
Then, without warning, Bill Connor’s life was rerouted.
Jaran, his 18-year-old son, who lived in St. Cloud, Minnesota, with Mr. Connor’s daughter and first wife, began complaining of headaches. As they became more frequent and intense, Jaran saw a physician who prescribed medication to ease the pain. The medication didn’t work and the headaches worsened. Finally, the physician ordered several tests, which revealed the cause of Jaran’s headaches: brain cancer.
The family was shocked. Making the diagnosis worse was a consensus among several doctors that the cancer was inoperable and that Jaran’s best chance for survival was to undergo a treatment of chemotherapy, followed by radiation.
Bill Connor’s life was no longer directed by banking and buses. His son’s welfare became his number-one priority. Jaran received treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, approximately a 4-hour drive from Sioux Falls. Once a week for 28 weeks, Jaran spent half a day at the hospital undergoing tests and receiving chemotherapy. At first, the two made the trip from Sioux Falls or St. Cloud by car. As the treatment began to take its toll on Jaran, his dad decided they would travel in “Hound Dog 1,” his 1963 GM 4106 bus conversion. “Riding in the bus took the edge off the trip and made it fun,” Bill said. “On the return trip when Jaran was feeling sick, he could lie in bed and watch videos.”
As Jaran’s treatment progressed, doctors began to see improvement in his condition. The tumor had stopped growing and — more importantly — it had shrunk. It was after one of these positive reports that an angel tapped Mr. Connor’s shoulder.
“I was on the phone with my wife telling her the good news about Jaran’s treatment,” Mr. Connor recalled. “I looked over and saw a mother pushing a 3-year-old in a stroller who looked very sick and very cold. I watched her pushing that stroller down the ramp in the cold weather. I imagined how terrible she must have felt pushing around her sick child and having to put him in a cold car for the ride home. I thought it would be so cool if she had a nice warm bus out front that they could comfortably ride in.”
The image of that mother and child played again and again in Mr. Connor’s mind as he drove back to Sioux Falls that afternoon. During the long hours at the hospital, he had seen countless others who were suffering just like his son. He wished that he could load those people — the sick and dying children and their desperate parents — into his coach and make their long, difficult trips more comfortable. Common sense told him that he couldn’t do it alone, but what about the people who shared his passion for bus conversions and motorhoming? Would they share his compassion and enthusiasm and volunteer their coaches to the cause?
“Maybe that’s why I started that magazine a few months before Jaran was diagnosed,” Mr. Connor said, believing that destiny, rather than coincidence, put him in the position to rally other motor coach owners. “The people who get the magazine typically have the time and money to volunteer their coaches. And this is a cause that I thought would strike them.” Mr. Connor introduced the Angel Bus concept to readers of The Private Coach Enthusiast magazine in February 2000.
It didn’t take long before volunteers began to call for more information. The phone also began ringing with transportation requests from parents and social service agencies. The word was out, and Mr. Connor’s fledgling charity spread its wings and took flight.
Angel Bus trips — known as “missions” — are primarily for children from families of limited financial means who require treatment at medical facilities far from their homes. Sometimes these children cannot fly due to their medical condition; other times, insurance will not cover the transportation costs. Mr. Connor emphasized that transportation via Angel Bus is not to be confused with a taxi service. Rather, it is “for people who need that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for experimental treatment or to have specialized exams to see if they qualify for treatment.” However, he doesn’t rule out other missions that fit the organization’s caring and compassionate ideals.
One such mission was completed by Randall and Becca Couk, F288802, of Austin, Texas. It all began when Mr. Couk read about the organization in a motorhome dealer’s newsletter. He requested more information via the Internet, filled out a volunteer application, and mailed it back to Angel Bus. Then one day the Couks received a call asking if they could accept a mission. It became the first of several missions the couple completed.
“The first one we did was kind of a rush,” Mr. Couk recalled. “Doctors said the boy only had two weeks to live.” That boy, Kevin, actually a young man in his 20s, lived in Cushing, Oklahoma, and wanted to spend his final days at home surrounded by family and friends. But he was at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, more than 500 miles from home. He couldn’t fly on an airplane because of his condition, and insurance would not cover the cost of a private ambulance. Angel Bus was the family’s last resort.
When the Couks arrived at the hospital in their 35-foot Georgetown motorhome, they immediately realized the severity of Kevin’s situation. Six months earlier he had been a strapping young man, standing 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighing 235 pounds. Since then, cancer had stripped his body weight to a frail 130 pounds. As Kevin’s father gently carried him into their coach, the Couks could see his parent’s love and concern.
The drive to Cushing was long and the group stopped several times before reaching their destination. As the motorhome pulled up to Kevin’s home, a group of friends and family were there to greet them. “I was really happy for the young man, that everyone stayed there until he got home,” Mr. Couk said.
Angel Bus coordinators typically have a short time to make transportation arrangements, Mr. Connor noted. “We usually have only a few days to get the mission together,” he said. “For most of these families, this is a desperate situation, and we don’t have the luxury of much time to plan.”
That’s why he believes FMCA members make great Angel Bus volunteers. “Many of the members are retired … and they have a motorhome in the driveway. All they’re looking for is a good reason to drive it. I’ve talked to several of our volunteers who have told me that they spent $300,000 on a coach and it sits in the driveway most of the year.” Another perk for volunteers is that since Angel Bus is a charitable organization, mission-related expenses are tax-deductible.
Becoming an Angel Bus volunteer is easy. Simply fill out the application — the form asks for basic information plus some additional background information — and mail it back to Angel Bus along with proof that you have a current driver’s license and insurance. Once your application is reviewed and approved, your name will be added to the list of available drivers in your region. Should a driver in your area be needed, you will be contacted and asked if you and your motorhome are available for a mission. If so, Angel Bus will provide the specifics of the trip — dates, destination, passengers, etc. — and you’ll be ready to go.
Once volunteers make that first trip, they usually become enthusiastic and active supporters. “It’s a great feeling for the volunteers to see the heartfelt appreciation of the mothers and fathers of the children who benefit from this,” Mr. Connor said. “I think it’s wonderful to see so many people who really care; people who are there and have proven that they’ll respond to a genuine need.”
In a letter to Angel Bus, the Couks reflected on what their first mission meant to them: “[Kevin’s] mom, Susie Brennan, told us that she would forever remember the smile on Kevin’s face when he saw his home and a small crowd of family and friends that had gathered in the front yard. Mission complete. Becca and I would complete this mission again in a heartbeat. Thank you so very much for making our world bigger as Angel Bus volunteers.” Mr. Connor said the Couks’ letter is one of many he’s received from volunteers expressing their gratitude for being part of such a worthwhile cause.
Regardless of the mission, volunteers typically go out of their way to make the ride as enjoyable as possible, considering the circumstances. “We try to wow the people who are selected for missions,” Mr. Connor said. “Many times they’re overwhelmed when they see this big bus conversion or motorhome roll up.” Mr. Couk remembered how appreciative his passengers were. “They can’t believe that a stranger would make such a commitment,” he said. “We had plenty of food, snacks, and beverages and tried to make sure they were as comfortable as possible.” For exceptionally long trips, volunteers often perform a relay, transferring passengers at a predetermined point along the route.
Since Mr. Connor started Angel Bus, it has grown in both size and reputation. Today, the organization’s board of advisers includes former South Dakota governor Frank Farrar; former FOX-TV NFL football analyst Pat Summerall and his wife, Cheri; Gospel music radio personality Jim Black; Singing News magazine owner Maurice Templeton; and Randy and Ruth Anderson, F258772.
In addition, Angel Bus has agreed to work with Angel Flight, a non-profit organization that provides air transportation for needy patients, should its flights be cancelled or additional ground transportation be required. Angel Bus also has formed an alliance with Greyhound. If a patient needs immediate transportation and no motorhome can be found on short notice, Greyhound will provide free transportation.
Since Jaran’s cancer treatment ended, he has resumed a normal life. He is now 22 years old, works at a local music store, and plays in a Christian rock band. This past school year he volunteered his time to start a drum line at a Buffalo, Minnesota, high school. The newly formed line placed second in state competition.
Because Jaran’s tumor was never removed, the cancer is still there. Doctors have classified it as inactive, and he must return to the hospital every six months for tests. But Mr. Connor knows his prayers have been answered. “Jaran’s doing great,” he said. “We thank God that he’s done so well.”
Volunteer motorhome drivers are the backbone of the organization, but to operate the administrative side of the charity, Angel Bus relies on donations and in-kind contributions. Those interested in helping as either a volunteer driver, regional coordinator, or contributor may contact Angel Bus by calling (877) 428-4798 or (605) 428-4777; or by visiting www.angelbus.org