When radio personality Tony Rose does a promotion, it has legs. And wheels. And several forward gears.
Rose hosts “The Tony Rose Show,” which is heard weekday mornings on Bowling Green’s D-93 WDNS-FM, but you could argue that the show is a side gig to Rose’s true claim to fame: originator and mastermind of the Stuff the Bus event that has accelerated like a Blue Bird bus with brake failure since its inception in 2006.
Now with its own promotional video shown on social media, a 5-kilometer run to raise money and its own Facebook page, Stuff the Bus threatens to consume Rose.
“I deal with something Stuff the Bus-related just about every week of the year,” Rose said during an interview this week. “From May until August, it’s every day.”
Rose is shifting into overdrive now, with the 12th version of Stuff the Bus coming up July 20-24 in front of Bluegrass Cellular on Campbell Lane. That’s where Rose had the original big yellow bus parked when he cooked up the idea of living on a bus until it was stuffed with donated school supplies to help children in need.
More than 70 total tons of school supplies later – all donated to family resource centers and other organizations that help children in need – Rose and his small cadre of volunteers face the daunting task of topping last year’s haul of nearly 17 tons on four buses.
That axle-straining tonnage is testament to how Rose, who started Stuff the Bus as a stunt, has tapped into both a real need in the region and an equally real penchant for giving to create an event that is part philanthropy and part entertainment.
“I thought we would do it one year and never do it again,” Rose said. “We didn’t know what we were getting into. And I didn’t realize the extent of the need until we started doing this. We collected more than two tons that first year, and I thought the family resource centers would never use it all. One (FRC) coordinator told me that it would get them through the first weekend.”
That first year was an eye-opener for Rose in another way, thanks to an encounter with a girl with a giving spirit.
“Some parents brought a little girl by the bus,” he said. “She had been wanting to stop by. They left and came back later with probably $50 worth of school supplies. She had been saving for a bicycle, but once she visited the bus she said she wanted to give to Stuff the Bus. That’s when I knew we were doing something bigger than a radio stunt.”
Considerably bigger, said Bowling Green Realtor Bobby Hunton, who has helped Rose with the logistics of Stuff the Bus since that first year.
“The first time, it was really a publicity stunt,” Hunton said. “Once we got into it, we realized we could actually make a difference and fill a need in the community.”
One of the recipients of the Stuff the Bus largesse says Rose and his team are making a difference with their deliveries of paper, pencils, crayons and backpacks.
“Until Tony came along with Stuff the Bus, we were desperate for school supplies,” said Lynn Vincent, youth services center coordinator at Warren County Public Schools’ Henry F. Moss Middle School. “School supplies are the No. 1 need that parents put on the parent survey every year.
“There’s no way we could meet that need without Stuff the Bus, especially at the first part of the school year. We have a large number of (English as a second language) students, and many of those families have no school supplies whatsoever. There are students in my office daily, asking for school supplies.”
Meeting that need has become a passion for Rose, who has seen the stunt he cooked up grow not only in volume but in organization. From a first year that saw bags of crayons and pencils tossed haphazardly on one bus that served only Bowling Green and Warren County schools, Stuff the Bus has grown into a well-oiled machine that fills multiple buses and serves 10 counties.
Mari Whitlow, a WNKY-TV employee and longtime Stuff the Bus volunteer, is a big reason for that improved organization.
“I physically can’t lift boxes anymore,” Whitlow says, “so I run around and keep everything organized.”
How does Whitlow explain the growth of her organizational task?
“I think the message has been clear all along, even when it was a stunt, that this is about the children being able to start school on a level playing field,” she said. “I think the community realizes that we’re sincere about what we’re doing.”
Whitlow’s job has evolved to include documenting monetary donations that have started to come in year-round. Those donations are used to purchase school supplies, with Whitlow and Kentucky Savings Group partner Elisabeth Fielder-Hix finding deals that stretch those donations.
The donations have also led to a Stuff the Bus scholarship fund created two years ago in conjunction with the College Heights Foundation at Western Kentucky University. That fund awarded one $2,000 scholarship the first year and two $1,000 scholarships this year, with all recipients being family members of a local bus driver.
“One of the problems we identified was that the event ends in July but people keep donating for weeks afterward,” Rose said. “So we decided to create that next level, a scholarship fund that allocates to children whose parents, grandparents or family members are bus drivers.
“I have learned how awesome the bus drivers are. They are sometimes the only person who truly knows where these children come from.”
In addition to the scholarship fund, Rose said he is pursuing nonprofit status for Stuff the Bus to allow the event to continue its outreach.
“I would like to get to a point where we can do fundraisers throughout the year,” he said. “Being a nonprofit will allow us to do that.”
Currently, the College Heights Foundation matches the money raised for the Stuff the Bus scholarship fund. Rose would like the fund to grow to a point that is self-sustaining.
“We need to raise $50,000,” he said. “Once we get to that point, the fund will automatically push out two $1,000 scholarships each year. That would be the ultimate legacy, helping send kids to college.”