Calling Began with Special Needs Kids, Grew From There

November 11, 2010

By: Barbara Wieland, Lansing State Journal

While a student at Michigan State University, Kellie Dean took a summer job as a substitute teacher at the Marvin Beekman Center in Lansing, a school that focuses on students with physical and mental disabilities.

It was meant to last only a couple of months, but that job would change the former MSU football player's life. When he returned to school that fall, Dean changed his career plan from physical therapy to special education.

He had found his life's calling.

"I still say that was one of the best jobs I ever had," said Dean, president and CEO of Dean Transportation, Dean Trailways of Michigan and Dean Management Services. "I enjoyed working with the students, all the staff there."

As CEO of three Lansing companies that together employ more than 1,000 statewide, Dean no longer can spend several hours a day with special needs children. But his determination to work on their behalf endures - and his efforts have landed his companies this year's Freeman Philanthropic Services Award for Outstanding Corporations from the Capital Area Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

Through his own direct efforts and through his companies, Dean has worked with organizations such as Special Olympics, the Ronald McDonald House and the Red Cross to benefit lives in mid-Michigan.

"I think that if you live here, you work here, you raise kids and go to school here, there is a responsibility to be a part of the community," Dean said.

Dean spent two years as a teacher's aide at Beekman and 11 years as a teacher after graduating from MSU, first at Beekman and then at Lansing's North Elementary School. For two of those years, he was the administrator in charge of special education.

Working with students transformed his life.

"I always say I still feel I got more from them than I could ever give," Dean said. "They were truly a blessing in my life."

'A changing tide'

The more time Dean spent with special needs students, the more he came to understand exactly what those needs were. He realized some of his students had to spend a lot of time in hospitals. Parents sometimes had to travel for hours between home and the hospital. And there was the matter of safe transportation for special education students.

So, when Lyle Stephens asked him in 1986 to join Special Transportation Inc., a busing company that served special education students in many areas of the state, Dean found the offer appealing.

"Lyle could see there was a changing tide," Dean said. "Nationally, our federal government had paid a lot of attention to the yellow school buses across the nation but had not paid attention to special needs population."

Dean knew Stephens through their involvement in Special Olympics, an organization both had been active in. Trusting that Stephens shared his mission for helping special needs children, Dean signed on.

In 1995, as Stephens readied for retirement, Dean bought the company and renamed it Dean Transportation. The company has grown since the purchase to a 1,000-vehicle operation with about 1,000 employees. Nearly 100 school districts in the state have contracted with Dean for their entire busing operations. The largest district is Grand Rapids Public Schools, and Dean Transportation also contracts to provide special education busing needs in Ingham, Eaton and Clinton counties.

Dean also saw a need for diversification. In 1996, he formed Dean Trailways of Michigan, a bus tour and charter operation that offers casino travel packages in the state daily. Dean Trailways has about 65 workers.

The third Dean company, Dean Management Services, focuses on school busing needs and serves 25 school districts. The company typically provides the buses and maintenance to school districts, while the district provides drivers. That creates a middle ground between keeping busing in-house and contracting out the work completely to a company such as Dean Transportation.

Helping others

Between all the companies, Dean estimates that his drivers transport 25,000 people daily. The companies are privately owned and Dean declined to offer sales or other financial data for any of them.

But business isn't Kellie Dean's only pressing concern. Philanthropy - expressed either as an individual action or through his companies - is an important part of his life.

The Red Cross Mid-Michigan Chapter recently nominated Dean for a local philanthropy award because Dean Transportation provides free routine maintenance and safety inspections for the Red Cross' fleet, a service valued at $25,000 annually.

Giving back

Michelle Reynaert, president of the Capital Area Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals and the development director for the Sparrow Foundation said Dean - the man and the company - are "truly tremendous" and "community-minded."

"Dean and his team have proven time and time again to be tremendously community-minded," Reynaert said.

For example, Dean's company also has been a vital supporter of Special Olympics for many years, and Dean himself has supported the organization for more than 30 years.

"Since he acquired Dean Transportation, he has donated all transportation needs for Special Olympics in Ingham and Eaton Counties," as well as some other areas of the state, said Anne Goudie, area director for Special Olympics Michigan.

Goudie estimates the donated services to be worth $70,000 annually.

"He probably wouldn't own up to that," Goudie said. "Trying to get him to admit to all that he does is hard. (Dean) is one of those one-in-a-million people that our community is so blessed to have."

Donating to causes he finds important gives Dean a "feeling that you're giving back and make a difference," he said.

"I really feel proud for the opportunity ... to share our wheels to connect people together and make good things happen," he said.

Dean, personally and through his companies, remains a Beekman Center supporter. Principal Sherry Bacon said one of Dean's strengths is his ability to rally people to a cause.

"He is able to just get people to understand that doing something is a community service, and that is critical to the value of our town," she said. "He sees it as: 'This is my town, this is my community and I need to do everything I can to make it better.' "

'A labor of love'

For example, Dean played an instrumental role in forming the Lansing Ronald McDonald House, a housing option for the families of children staying at Sparrow Hospital. In 1999, Dean helped raise $1.5 million to get the local Ronald McDonald house started.

"It was a labor of love," he said. "I always look at it with great pride when I drive by. I think it was the right thing to assist those families."

Dean also is working with former MSU football teammate John Shinsky to establish an orphanage in Matamoros, Mexico.

Dean's next big project is to create the Lansing Promise Zone, a program that would guarantee Lansing school students college tuition if they graduate from high school.

Dean said that philanthropy will continue to be a cornerstone of his life and the life of his companies.

"When we can give something back to schools and community, we do it," he said. "I want us to be more than a yellow bus company."

Article From the Lansing State Journal