Socorro Pelayo starts praying around 3 a.m., when she’s filling a thermos with coffee and packing her lunch. There’s no time to stop somewhere during her shift, so she has to be prepared.
She prays in the car on her drive to the Fresno Area Express bus garage. Then, as her bus starts to rumble to life, just before her route starts at 5:45 a.m., she walks down the aisle and prays over each seat.
“I touch every seat and say, ‘God cover all these people and help them. Bless them,’” said Pelayo, 65. “ I tell God, ‘You drive this bus. I’m not driving this bus.’”
Pelayo, who has been a bus driver for more than 30 years, credits that ritual for her timing last week, when she witnessed an assault of a 16-year-old girl waiting at a FAX bus stop at Palm and Shields avenues.
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Ny’ja Davis, a Bullard High School student, takes the city bus to school because she lives out of the attendance zone. A high-achieving student, her mother chose the school for its academic programs.
Before 8 a.m. on Feb. 6, a man Ny’ja had never seen at the bus stop before sat down next to her and intensely stared at her. “He was acting weird,” she said.
She got up and walked closer to the curb and put her headphones in. The next thing she knew, he was grabbing her by the straps of her backpack.
“He started pulling on me, yanking on me and grabbing on me,” Ny’ja said. “I started screaming for somebody to help me, but nobody came.”
That’s when Pelayo’s bus pulled up.
“I ran on the bus and (Pelayo) hurried up and closed the doors,” Ny’ja said. “He was yelling something, but I was too scared to understand.” The man hit Ny’ja on the butt and legs on her way onto the bus and started to bang on the sides of the bus.
Pelayo called the police and consoled Ny’ja, who was shaking and crying – and the other riders on the bus who were upset by the scene.
“She was crying and scared. I said, ‘Hold on, the police are coming.’ I told her to just calm down and that she was OK,” Pelayo said. “He wasn’t getting on my bus.”
According to Fresno police, Julian Medina, 29, was arrested and charged with alleged felony sexual battery and annoyance/molestation of a child.
“After (Medina) resisted arrest and became somewhat combative with officers, he was taken into custody. After being questioned, he admitted he was going to attempt to rape the 16-year-old but the bus pulled up,” said Sgt. Israel Reyes.
Ny’ja’s mother, Lakayla Green, considers Pelayo her guardian angel.
“She called me, and I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, I can’t get there where my baby is.’ I was real upset, crying on the phone … but she took care of her,” Green said. “We appreciate her, and I thank God for her.”
Pelayo says it’s nothing. The soft-spoken grandmother of six, who moved to the U.S. from Mexico in 1983, is tough.
“I don’t get scared,” she laughed.
And she loves her job on the road. Before she was a FAX driver, she worked as a school bus driver for special education students in Clovis Unified and Fresno Unified. Before that, she enjoyed driving her children in the family van, exploring the city.
“I got to love Fresno after a while,” she said. “Just being on the bus and greeting the people … I don’t know, I love being a bus driver. I’m a bus driver at heart. I don’t want to retire.”
Fresno Unified plans to publicly recognize Pelayo “for her heroism,” and for helping one of their students in need.
“People like Ms. Socorro make our city a home for so many of our children,” said school board president Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas.