(Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series on Caring For Kids, the nonprofit that serves needy students in Lakewood, Steilacoom and University Place. Read about the organization )
It’s shortly after 10 a.m. on a Friday morning, and Diane Formoso has already accomplished more than some people get done all day. That’s what happens when you start most days before the sun is up.
In the next two hours, her list will grow with a stop at Alfretta House to pick up cases of books that she will toss into her van with surprising agility and then lug out to the new Caring For Kids center; pop into the Boys and Girls Club to collect dishes; stop by the Clover Park School District’s ECAAP headquarters; sort a few bags of donated clothes; and then it’s off to Macy’s to investigate a sale where she could snag some good items for the – next February.
When you’re Diane Formoso, you’re always thinking ahead, thinking on your feet – and thinking about children.
Formoso, 66, has the art of organization down to a practiced skill. After all, the former school-bus driver is a one-woman show.
Her friends and family say she needs to learn to delegate, to relax, to let someone else share the burden, but that’s just not Formoso’s nature. Too much is on the line. Too many kids need her help.
~ A necessary lifeline ~
“We have never met a person so passionate and caring about schoolchildren,” said Pat Hildebrandt, who along with her husband, Ed, is a Caring For Kids board member. “She is certainly a saint in the eyes of so many children over the many years since she started caring for her kids as a bus driver.”
The organization that started 40 years ago with a little girl who boarded Formoso’s bus on a cold morning without a coat has evolved into a lifeline for needy students in Clover Park, Steilacoom and University Place schools. It has provided tens of thousands of children with clothing, school supplies, shoes, food, Christmas presents – the list goes on and on.
And while the need increases and money ebbs and flows, one thing remains the same: Without Diane Formoso, there is no Caring For Kids.
“It’s a 24-hours-a-day job,” she said. “It’s something you have to be thinking about all the time.”
Her average to-do list looks like this: Shop for the ; shop for the ; shop for the auction; pick up unclaimed lost-and-found items from the schools, then separate, wash and sort them; drop off clothing bank orders at various schools; work on the logistical side of the Ready to Learn Fair – setting up haircuts, immunizations and sports physicals and passing out fliers. And then there are the 40 or 50 trips she makes to local retailers to pick up school supplies for bargain prices.
But, she added with a tiny smile of satisfaction, she doesn’t have to go buy backpacks this year.
“I got an email (from a retail employee) that said I’ve got to come buy them now,” she said.
Even having one item crossed off her never-ending list is an accomplishment for Formoso, who operates her nonprofit on a shoestring budget, made possible by grants, volunteers and donations.
“Diane is a truly amazing woman,” said former board president Shawn Munsey, a Steilacoom schoolteacher. “She is like the Energizer Bunny. She has more energy than any other human being I know. She will do anything for kids in need.”
~ A love of children ~
Formoso, a Tacoma native who graduated from Wilson High School, initially planned to become a physical-education teacher. After a year at Olympic College in Bremerton, she changed her mind. She started driving a school bus when she was 23 and retired at 58.
“It was the perfect job for me because I’d be working when the kids were in school and I’d be home during the summer,” said Formoso, the mother of four sons. “You just can’t beat that.”
While driving the same route every day could become tedious, Formoso said she made it fun for both herself and her tiny passengers. She first drove special-education students in Tacoma and then kindergarteners at then-Lakeview Elementary School in CPSD.
“I loved my job,” she said. “We were a family. I’ve been to their weddings; I know their aunts and uncles and kids; I know their dogs …”
Formoso said that she misses driving the kindergarteners, who never failed to provide entertainment.
“One of the best ones was that I knew the kids at Lakeview were poor, so I got everyone a small Christmas present. One of the little girls sat down behind me and said, ‘I am so excited! I’m going to go home and write about this in my diarrhea!’
“It took me a whole week to not burst out laughing every time I saw her.”
To work with children, she said, “You have to kind of be a kid at heart to enjoy it.”
~ A true go-getter ~
When she can be dragged away from her work, Formoso enjoys traveling with her husband, Ed, a retired state toxicologist. They especially enjoy going to Las Vegas, and will be heading to Europe in November. But true to form, she’s already worried about keeping things running. falls on the Saturday that she’s gone, and the poinsettia sale will have to kick off without her.
“I have to let go of trying to control everything,” she said. “It’s going to happen whether I have control of it or not.”
That tiny concession is a relief to those she refers to as her “wing people.”
“Probably the hardest part of working with Caring for Kids is just trying to keep up with Diane,” Ed Hildebrandt said. “We attempt to take away – although for the most part unsuccessfully – some of her workload.”
Formoso admits that she worries about what will happen to Caring For Kids once she’s gone.
“Nobody’s going to do this for free,” she said. “There’s too much to it.”
Even just the shopping, she added, means you have to be extremely knowledgeable about sales – where to shop, when to shop, who to talk to at each store. Formoso has made friends with employees at K-Mart and Wal-Mart. She’s a near-weekly fixture at the in Lakewood. Employees at Sears text her when a sale is coming up.
“You form relationships every place you go,” she said. “When you spend as much time shopping as I do, you see some of them more than you see some of your friends.”
It’s a tradeoff she is clearly willing to make, though.
“She’ll start at two or three o’clock in the morning and go until seven at night and then she passes out,” said her sister, Marlene Pennington, a CPSD bus driver who sits on the board. “She’s always been this way, a go-getter, doing stuff for somebody else, and not much for herself.”
Asked to describe herself in a word, Formoso immediately responded with “caring.”
“That was easy, wasn’t it?” she laughed.
Then she paused.
“Maybe pushy, too,” she said thoughtfully. “People get tired of listening to me, but you know what? It’s made the changes that need to be made.
“You can make a difference.”