A quick thinking bus driver and the Folsom community came together last week to reunite a lost autistic child with his family, after he ran from his home and was unable to find his way home.

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Just before the sun went down on Valentine’s Day, Folsom Cordova Unified School District bus driver Marina Gabel was doing just as she does every day at the end of her route in the Folsom Ranch community. Gabel had pulled over after her bus was empty and walking about it, looking for items left behind. Just before she headed back to the district’s transportation yard, Gabel’s “typical” routine took a different turn with a tap on her bus door. 

After hearing the tap on the door, Gabel looked down to see a small boy that appeared no more than nine years old, he wasn’t one of her students and she hadn’t seen him before. She opened the door and asked him how she could help him, noticing her was barefoot. Just seconds after she greeted him, the small boy ran off. As she watched him, she could see he was somewhat frantic, jumping over small fences and darting about. 

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As dusk began to become dark and light rain began to fall, Gabel was concerned. The fact that the child was barefoot and acting scared and frantic told her that something just wasn’t right, so she didn’t head back to the bus yard as she normally would, she began following him through the neighborhood. Fearing he was going to run in front of her bus, Gabel put it in park and stepped outside to try and speak with him again. 
“Are you okay? Is your mom around? Are you lost?” Gabel asked the young man that was later identified as Anthony. With previous experience driving buses for Special Education programs, Gabel guessed that the young boy was non-verbal autistic. He didn’t seem to understand her questions, but at the same time he was not defiant and appeared to be attempting to go somewhere or find someone in particular. 

Just as she thought she was establishing communication with Anthony; he quickly ran off. Gabel then jumped back in her bus in an effort to catch up with the running boy, knowing he needed some type of help. Many in the Folsom Ranch neighborhood were arriving home from work, she stopped to speak with many of them, sharing the description of Anthony to anyone she could find. 

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As she was reaching out to residents, Gabel spotted a woman who was typing quickly on her phone. She yelled to her to ask if she had seen the boy, the woman confirmed that he ran by and she didn’t know him but she was actively posting the information on the neighborhood’s WhatsApp group chat to help spread the word for other neighbors to be on the lookout. 

The two began working in tandem, as Gabel continued to search for the boy, the neighbor continued communicating across social media. They soon began receiving responses from residents that shared doorbell camera footage, showing Anthony trying to enter their homes or running by. It was then that they met Anthony’s mother, Amanda, who was frantic, explaining that he suddenly ran out of their home so quickly she couldn’t even catch him. 

Amanda confirmed with Gabel that Anthony was indeed non-verbal autistic and she explained that he is a runner. She also told them that law enforcement had already been notified and was enroute. Meanwhile, neighbors in the area continue to post on the app, sharing where they or their camera’s had spotted the running boy. 

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The three devised a plan to split up and search for the boy, Gabel jumped back in her bus and began driving through the community while the others canvassed the area on foot and in car on the hunt for Anthony, visiting the locations he was spotted on cameras in hopes it would lead to his location. 

As she drove back from the perimeter of the neighborhood to reunite with the others, Gabel spotted a man who had joined the efforts flagging her down, “ they found him, they have him, they found him,” he exclaimed. Anthony had entered a home a family in the neighborhood who had experience with autistic children, they recognized what was happening and immediately shared his whereabouts on the community app, reuniting him with his mother. 

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Thankful to hear the news, Gabel was comfortable heading back to the district yard. Driving with tears in her eyes, she couldn’t help but realize that the search for Anthony was accomplished by far more than three of them that originally connected, it was numerous members of the community that had gone out on foot, on bike, in cars to search for the young boy many had never even met.

Just days after the incident, Folsom City Councilmember Anna Rohrbough received calls from members of the community. Many of them took notice of Gabel’s determination to find the boy, determination that brought others out of their homes to help as a community. She then received a call from Amanda, sharing the experience in her own words as the community came together to help find her son.

“I could hear her emotion and even the feeling of her being overwhelmed as she realized how quickly it all happened and what might have been,” said Rohrbough. “Anthony is a runner, not to get away from something and the worst is to not necessarily to run towards something, they just run, she explained to me. She shared how she can’t take him to parks unless there is a fence. She has to be incredibly diligent at home in order to even sleep. An alarm system helps with that. They have to find new locking mechanisms all the time to stay ahead of Anthony’s intellect.”

According to Rohrbough, Amanda explained that she had driven into her garage as she normally does and closed the door behind her. She unbuckled Anthony and told him he could go ahead inside while she got the bags from her car. Within moments she was alerted by an app on her phone that the front door was unlocked, likely unoticed when her 20-year-old daughter entered it just prior to them arriving home. 

Amanda shared many of her concerns about Anthony. The fact that he doesn’t know the danger of cars, or dogs, or entering into someone house without permission. He knows how to swim but doesn’t understand the danger involved. She expressed her genuine fears in what could have happened in those critical minutes if it hadn’t been for Gabel and the neighbors quick willingness to act. 

“I was a mess and these parents and neighbors took time away from their family to help me. I didn’t have community like this before.” Amanda said. “I didn’t have this before. I am so grateful and glad to have moved to Folsom.”

Maria Gabel (above and top photo) is a school bus driver for the Folsom Cordova Unified School District that helped pull a neighborhood together to guide a lost non-verbal autistic child back to his home last week.

Bill Sullivan
Author: Bill Sullivan