Person of the Week
Lil Cooney Puts Puzzle Pieces Together as M&J Dispatcher
Lil Cooney has worked in the bussing industry for more than 30 years and is now a dispatcher for M&J Bus Inc. in North Haven. (Photo courtesy of Lil Cooney)
Throughout Lil Cooney’s 31-year career in the busing industry, the past 18 months have proved to be the most challenging of any time she has ever seen. Lil is a dispatcher for M&J Bus, Inc.’s North Haven location and every day seems to bring new challenges.
“It’s crazy right now. With the shortage of drivers, we’ve had to double up bus routes, which is working out well for now,” says Lil. “Every day it’s a puzzle and every day it’s different because kids have different schedules on different days so it’s just trying to piece everything together, but it always works out.”
With COVID changing the transportation industry—and many others—overnight in March 2020, M&J Bus, Inc., found itself short drivers when school was back in session. Lil notes that they are currently short about seven drivers, but there are several drivers going through training and one who is preparing for the test at the DMV.
Another challenge Lil faces is the regulations for hiring and training drivers. The six- to eight-week process includes background checks, fingerprinting, classroom training, road testing, CDL testing, and earning several endorsements.
Lil is in contact with the schools in town on a daily basis. She has been working closely with Superintendent of Schools Patrick Stirk, the Board of Education, and the athletic department in order to continue to service North Haven Public Schools. With the driver shortage, coordinating athletic trips has been a particular challenge.
“The North Haven athletic director has been really good about working with me in scheduling times that will work in between bus routes,” says Lil. “In a normal year, we’d have spare drivers, but now we have to work around it and solve the puzzle every day.”
Lil is drawing on 16 years of experience as a dispatcher and 30 years of working in the same location under different bus companies. Lil moved to North Haven in 1989 and the next year, she got a job as a van driver for the special education department.
In 2003, Lil moved to the administrative side, working in the office and heading up the special education routes. She has served the last 10 years of her 16-year dispatcher career with M&J. As a dispatcher, Lil puts the routes together, schedules the routes, and makes the necessary changes and additions to the routes.
“I told the owner of company when he hired me, ‘I’m good at what I do because I love what I do,’” says Lil. “If you don’t love what you do, you won’t be good at it and I think I’ve proven myself.”
While Lil loves solving the puzzles that her job presents, her favorite part of her job is the relationships she has formed with her coworkers. She says there are still “quite a few old-timers here, but they’re fading out as they were retired to begin with.”
Lil enjoys helping to keep the morale high and everyone in high spirits. She helps one of the drivers, Kelly Muir, who organizes monthly celebrations for the staff. They just had a “harvest hoedown” and will have a Halloween party at the end of the month. The owner of the company also recently installed a new kitchen for employees.
“We have great crew.I love all of our drivers and they’re team players,” says Lil. “I couldn’t do my job without them and they help me get through the day. The monthly parties help because things get a little testy sometimes—drivers get frustrated with angry parents or kids not behaving, so this boosts them up and lets them know we care about them and do what we can to make them happy.”
With the challenges that her job presents—Lil gets in at 5 a.m. and goes home between 4:30 and 5 p.m.—she enjoys relaxing or doing crossword puzzles at home. She and her husband John have been married for 23 years after meeting at a singles dance at Bill Miller’s Castle in Branford.
John is a retired stonemason and though Lil has had some thoughts of retirement, she plans to “stick it out for a few more years because I love what I do.”
Growing up, Lil lived in Hamden, West Haven, and Fair Haven. When it was time to settle down, she chose North Haven as she loves the “quaintness” and the safe feeling. As an added bonus, her house is only three minutes from the bus yard.
Lil has always enjoyed gardening. At one time, she was a member of the North Haven Garden Club and had a garden at her home at one time, but with her busy schedule, she took a break from both. She does hope to revisit those interests when it comes time to retire.
At home, Lil also spends time caring for her four rescue cats. She adopted one from the Branford Compassion Club. Her veterinarian connected her with a girl who had rescued cats in a supermarket parking lot and Lil adopted two. Her nephew then got a job driving a truck so she took in his cat as well.
Years ago, there was a colony of feral cats living at the bus yard. Lil noticed a group that came in to feed them and soon discovered it was volunteers from Fix and Feed North Haven, Inc. She was so moved by their mission to take care of cats that she has since made donations to the group.
“They do an awesome job,” says Lil, who also spends time visiting her 88-year-old mother in Branford. “They go out day or night in any weather and trap cats. If they’re sick, they get them to a vet, get them spayed or neutered, and whatever else they might need. It’s awesome what they do.”
Now there is just one cat left at the bus yard and Lil enjoys seeing it during her long days. With many challenges in her job, she finds herself drawing on her patience—a skill she honed many years ago when she cared for a woman with Alzheimer’s for 10 years.
“Being a manager and dispatcher, you have to have a lot of patience,” says Lil. “I wish parents could be more patient and understanding. We know it’s difficult when kids get home later than they’re supposed to sometimes. We understand you’re upset, but we’re doing the best we can.”
Jenn McCulloch is the Correspondent for Zip06. Email Jenn at .