Renita Smith had no thoughts for her own safety when she dashed onto a flaming school bus in Baltimore, Maryland. Instead, her only concern was for the 20 young children on board on that day in September 2016. And it was an act of bravery that caught the attention of Ellen DeGeneres. When the talk show host learned about the mom of two’s lifestyle, though, she was left in shock.
As the bus driver, Smith naturally felt that the young kids were her responsibility until she got them home from school. Moreover, having two children herself, her maternal instinct took over, and she had to double-check that no one had been left behind after emptying the bus.
But although Smith felt that she was merely doing what anyone else would have done, others saw her bravery for what it was. Images of the school bus inferno circulated around the internet, and news outlets spoke of the driver’s bravery. She was then hailed a hero by students and the public alike as her story began to spread. And one particular admirer penned a post that would go viral.
Yes, City of College Park council member Fazlul Kabir published a post on Facebook that month – complete with photos of the burned-out bus. And alongside these devastating images, a video of the inferno was shared. The footage had been captured on the dashcam of a volunteer firefighter and was subsequently shared to news outlets. So, with all of this media attention, naturally it wasn’t long before the story caught the attention of DeGeneres.
However, there was something about Smith that wouldn’t impress DeGeneres. When the TV host learned of the heroic bus driver’s background, you see, she discovered some facts about her life that she found pretty appalling. And so, DeGeneres invited the mom of two onto her show to try and make things right.
But when Smith first started out as a school bus driver back in 2014, she likely never imagined that she would end up gracing DeGeneres’ famous couch. Living in Upper Marlboro, Maryland – around 20 miles south-east of Washington, D.C. – Smith’s daily bus routes serve the area’s Prince George’s County Public Schools.
However, driving isn’t merely a way to make ends meet for Smith: it’s also a passion. She loves what she does and embraces the chance to meet new pupils, sharing a bond with each of those who board her bus. And as a mom herself, the driver understands the great weight of responsibility that she carries.
Of course, it can be worrisome for parents sending their young children out into the world beyond their immediate supervision. But mother-of-two Smith knows their concerns only too well. In fact, she treats all the students she drives to school as if they were her own – until she drops them safely back home at the end of the school day.
So when trouble struck on a Monday evening in September 2016, Smith’s maternal instincts kicked in, and she knew exactly what she needed to do. The driver was on her regular route, dropping kids home from Glenarden Woods Elementary School and the Robert Goddard Elementary School, when she spotted something odd in the side rearview mirror.
Smith was driving the children back to their homes in the College Park area of Maryland – near the D.C. border northeast of Washington. It was shortly before 5:00 p.m., and the driver had made the third drop-off of her last group of students for the day. But as Smith prepared to head to the next stop, a warning light showed up on her dashboard.
Apparently, the brake light had lit up, alerting Smith to some sort of mechanical issue with the vehicle. The experienced driver figured that she could probably make it safely to the next drop off before checking out what the problem might be. But events unfolded much more quickly than she could have imagined.
You see, Smith did in fact set off for the next drop-off point that was a block or two away. But she only made it as far as the next stop sign. And at this point, the kids – aged from four to nine years old – became agitated. They could smell something burning, and they quickly alerted the bus driver.
In 2016 Smith spoke about the events in more detail during her interview with DeGeneres. She said, “I got maybe to the next stop sign, and my babies [said], ‘Miss bus driver, we smell smoke.’”
As Smith brought the bus to a stop, she could hear a warning signal blaring. And as she described to Today in 2016, “We didn’t see the smoke, but we could smell it… And the smell – I can’t explain it – was horrible, and the kids were saying, ‘Ms. Bus Driver, the bus is smoking.’” Naturally, the woman realized then that the situation was urgent.
In fact, Smith knew that she had to call the issue in to the transportation manager. But as the bus driver reached for the radio, she happened to glance in the rear-facing side mirror. And in it, she could see exactly where the burning smell was coming from.
Smith told Today, “When I picked up the radio and I looked through my side rearview mirror, I saw the fire.” It was then that the seriousness of the situation became apparent. The bus driver knew there was no time to waste, and her maternal instincts kicked into overdrive. And, thankfully, her smart “babies” already knew just what to do.
Yes, when they saw the fire, the elementary schoolers formed a single file line ready to get off the bus. And Smith herself also acted swiftly when she spotted flames in the mirror. She explained to Today, “I unbuckled my safety belt, I opened the door and got my babies off that bus.”
Luckily, the bus was parked in a residential area, meaning neighbors were on hand to help. And as soon as local residents saw what was happening, a number of them rushed to assist, escorting the children away from the burning bus to safety. Smith, however, was worried about whether all of the kids had made it off the vehicle. What if, God forbid, someone had been left behind?
And so, Smith outlined what had happened next in her interview with DeGeneres. She said, “The neighbors jumped in and got the babies to a safe haven, and then I ran back into the bus, because I had to make sure all of my babies were accounted for.”
While everyone else had been making their way to safety, then, Smith had run back onto the bus. And although the vehicle had been rapidly filling with noxious fumes and smoke, the bus driver had taken the time to check every seat until she was satisfied that the vehicle was clear. Happy that no one had been left behind, then, she had to get herself to safety.
After Smith had checked the final seat at the rear of the bus, she turned and ran back toward the door. And it seems that the bus driver had timed her exit perfectly: as she reached the last step to safety, the coach suddenly became entirely engulfed in flames behind her. But Smith had no concern for herself – only the children whose lives had been entrusted to her.
Incredibly, Smith explained that she’d been unaware of the danger she’d put herself in until she saw footage of the inferno. Then, as soon as everyone had caught their breaths from the ordeal, the magnitude of what they had been through became apparent. After all, the raging fire – though contained to the bus – was already burning intensely.
“This fire was going too fast. I had a little extinguisher,” resident Lucy Kilin told NBC Los Angeles in 2016. “[But] it was too late. I couldn’t do anything.” All onlookers could do, in fact, was watch the smoke billowing skyward and flames consuming the school bus until first responders arrived.
Footage of the inferno was captured on the dashboard camera of a volunteer firefighter on the scene, showing a pillar of thick black smoke rising up from the school bus as flames leap from its roof and windows. And the emergency responder can be heard saying over the radio that the bus was “fully engulfed.”
Looking back at the video of the blaze, Smith herself was overwhelmed by what had happened. She explained to DeGeneres, “That’s what brought tears and emotions: the ‘what ifs.’ And I didn’t know [the fire] was that bad until [I watched the video].” Nevertheless, thanks in part to Smith’s quick thinking, the children were all unharmed in the incident.
Council member and university professor Fazlul Kabir later posted images of the burned-out bus to Facebook – and shared some words of praise for Smith. He added, “A big thank you to our school bus driver… who just saved 20 elementary school kids from a bus fire that completely destroyed the bus.”
Kabir – whose message was accompanied by a picture showing the charred remains of the bus – continued, “Not only [did Smith take] each one of the 20 kids from the bus one by one, [but she] also went [back] again into the empty bus while it was still burning. Thankfully, all the school kids went home safe.”
Kabir continued describing events in an interview with ABC in 2016. He said, “Without [Smith], the school children [wouldn’t have been] saved… She went inside for the very last time. She went inside and checked each seat to see if any of the students were left there… It’s a fairly long bus actually. It’s not a small bus. She checked if everyone was out, and nobody was inside… She’s brave.”
And one of the bus’ young passengers told NBC Washington in 2016 what she thought of the driver’s actions, saying, “I think it was extremely heroic, and it was very amazing… If she [hadn’t done] that, I don’t know what would have happened.” The children were later picked up by grateful parents at the scene of the fire.
Another student rescued from the school bus was Lisa Maitland, who told WJLA-TV that she wasn’t aware of what was happening until someone shouted, “Fire!” She said, “When I was smelling the smoke, it smelled like a rubber kind of gas.” However, when the elementary schooler grew concerned about the situation, she had an important distraction.
“I felt scared,” Maitland continued. “I was about to cry, but my brother did instead, so I helped him.” But, by all accounts, it seems that a calm and methodical approach to evacuating the burning school bus saved many lives that day. Furthermore, Smith’s bravery was later recognized by the whole school.
Yes, Glenarden Woods Elementary School realized that Smith had gone above and beyond her role, so in her honor it named September 28, 2016, Renita Smith Day. Hundreds of students attended a party held in Smith’s honor to thank her for her bravery, and they cheered as the mom-of-two walked in.
Smith was overwhelmed as she was met by hundreds of students, carrying banners that read, “Thank you!” And the bus driver was even thrown her own personal performance by the school choir, with the nearby DuVal High School Marching Tigers band also in attendance.
Smith then wept as the students she had rescued from the burning bus each handed her a rose. A plaque was unveiled in her honor by CEO of the school district, Dr. Kevin Maxwell, too. He told NBC Washington, “I saw the smoke and the flames, and she showed her unthinking, unflinching courage.”
But the accolades didn’t end there for Smith: after the story was picked up by local news, it spread to the national channels. And in time, news of Smith’s heroism reached the office of The Ellen DeGeneres Show – and so the beloved TV personality invited the bus driver onto her program for her moment in the spotlight.
Yet DeGeneres was shocked when she learned how Smith lived her life. The bus driver, you see, was actually living on the breadline while supporting a teenage son and young daughter. In fact, Smith’s moment on the Burbank, California-based Ellen was the first time that she’d ever flown.
Talking of her kids, Smith told Today, “It scared them a little once they saw the pictures, but they’ve been awesome: they are always supportive of their mom.” And although she may not wear a cape, to her kids, Smith is no less of a superhero.
Moreover, Smith explained to DeGeneres, “My son, one of his friends texted him and [said], ‘Your mom is a hero!’ And [he said], ‘My mom has always been a hero.’” Of course, DeGeneres was in agreement, and to make Smith’s life a little easier, she presented her with a gift.
Yes, DeGeneres handed Smith a check for $20,000 as a reward for her bravery. The money was a gift from image publishing firm Shutterfly, which, through The Ellen Show, offer donations to people with inspiring stories who perhaps need a helping hand in life. According to its website, the company has handed out around $2 million to date.
But Smith has continued to play down the heroism that she showed that day. As she explained to ABC News, “When I’m driving [you], you’re my children until I drop you off to your biological parents. I have to handle each child with care – as a mommy would her own – so that’s what I did. That’s what I hope any human being would do for any child.”
If this heartwarming story is anything to go by, it’s hard to deny that Ellen DeGeneres has a big heart. Maybe she should be renamed Ellen De-generous – given the kindness that she’s been known to show people like Smith. But there’s more proof where that came from. For instance, the popular talk show host recently gave away a record amount of money. It wasn’t a frivolous gift, mind you. On the contrary, DeGeneres made sure that the cash went to people who truly deserve the prize. And when she surprised the lucky recipients with the present in front of a live studio audience, their reaction was priceless.
There’s no denying that DeGeneres is very good at her job, of course. There is, after all, a reason why she’s extremely popular among television audiences. The host has, in fact, won more People’s Choice Awards than anybody else – in addition to 30 Emmys. And not only that, but in 2016 she was also given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award a U.S. president can bestow on civilians.
DeGeneres does a great deal of humanitarian work too. For instance, she’s an activist for LGBTQ rights and does a lot of campaigning for animal protection. But perhaps most impressive of all is the star’s philanthropy. Over the years, in fact, DeGeneres and The Ellen Show have helped raise millions of dollars for charities and deserving causes.
Even the star’s famous selfie at the 2014 Oscars raised money for good causes. The picture, which DeGeneres took on a Samsung handset, featured stars such as Jennifer Lawrence and Meryl Streep. The phone manufacturer then offered to give a dollar to charity for each retweet the picture got. And thanks to that deal, over $3 million ended up going to The Humane Society and St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital.
DeGeneres also apparently believes in rewarding people who try and be good human beings without millions of dollars to back them up. For example, in December 2011 The Ellen Show handed over $28,000 worth of Christmas presents to a family who were struggling. The host has also given away plenty of other stuff on her show to people who were in need.
The concept of paying it forward is seemingly something else that DeGeneres believes in too. In early 2015, for instance, she used her show to promote a pizza parlour where customers were encouraged to pay for extra pizza slices for homeless people. Then, by the middle of the year, restaurant visitors had paid for over 23,000 pieces of pizza.
And in February 2019 DeGeneres was up to her same old tricks – but with an impressive twist. This time around, you see, the people she chose to honor were the Daniels family: Robert, Christi and their four children. The host had met them before, so during her February show she explained their situation to the audience.
“I told you we had the biggest surprise we’ve ever done for one family,” DeGeneres announces in the clip later posted online. “And when I say it is big, it is big. We met the Daniels family [in] November  when they entered a contest to sit in our Skybox for the 12 Days of Giveaways.”
“After the show, we learned more about them,” the host continues. “And I wanted to help. Take a look.” Then the show cuts to footage of the family from November, and everyone sees Robert and Christi celebrating in their Skybox. DeGeneres goes on to explain how the Daniels had won the contest. It seems that they’d sent in a video of themselves dancing.
“Now, you’re the ones who sent a little note saying that that video spiced up your love life,” DeGeneres says, to laughter from the audience. “And I don’t know why you felt the need to write it in a note… Don’t get too excited up there!” Some more footage is played after this, and it shows the family meeting the host on January 16, 2019.
For this meeting, Robert and Christi brought their four adorable children along with them. “It’s good to see y’all again!” DeGeneres says. Then she talks about the family’s situation. “So you’re going through a tough time financially,” the host says. “It’s just hard, with four kids,” mom-of-four Christi replies. “We’re in a two bedroom, two bathroom apartment.”
“We’re grateful for what we have, but it’s hard,” Christi goes on. “Christmas is really tough for a lot of people,” DeGeneres says. “And it was really tough for you.” To one of the children, she then says, “R.J., I want you to tell everybody what Christmas means to you.” The young man replies to the host and the audience, “To me, Christmas isn’t about getting presents.”
“It’s about giving presents to others,” R.J. continues. “Seeing other people smile, it just makes me feel good.” The audience then wildly applauds the young man’s words. “I know you watch every single day,” DeGeneres tells the whole family. “So why don’t I give you every single thing we gave away on all 12 days?”
These flashback clips stop there, and then DeGeneres, back in the present, updates her audience on the Daniels family’s story. “So this morning, Jeannie surprised them at their apartment in Hawthorne, California,” she says. “And this is what happened.” The camera then cuts to the show’s correspondent Jeannie Klisiewicz waving hello to DeGeneres.
“Hi, Ellen!” Jeannie says. “I’m here in Hawthorne, C.A., about to surprise the Daniels family!” She then knocks on the family’s apartment door and finds them all inside. “I need you to listen up really carefully, okay?” she tells them. “You have ten minutes to get ready because I am taking you somewhere. I cannot tell you where!”
So the parents quickly start getting their four children ready, brushing their teeth and making them look nice. Then the family pile into the car, still not knowing where they are going. The car, however, has a big picture of DeGeneres’ face on its roof, out of sight of the passengers but perfectly visible to the cameras.
“We may not be able to tell you guys what’s going on,” Jeannie tells the family. “But you just gotta trust me. Y’all trust me?” The family answers in the affirmative. So as the Daniels crew sing and celebrate, the car journeys on towards DeGeneres’ talk show studio, where she and her audience are waiting for them.
“So that was earlier,” DeGeneres says, as the cameras come back to her studio. “I’m told they’re pulling onto the lot… They’re going to be coming through those doors. They didn’t even know they were coming here. They realize that now!” The audience laughs, and the cameras then show the family climbing out of the car.
The family subsequently burst onto the set to the tune of Pharrell Williams’ song “Happy.” DeGeneres quickly hugs the children, and the audience cheers wildly as everyone on stage sits down. At this point, then, the host begins explaining to them exactly why they had been brought back to the show and what is going on.
“Y’all are very trusting,” DeGeneres cheerfully tells the family. “You didn’t know where you were going, you just got in a van!” Then she begins the explanation. “Last time you were here, we gave you all 12 Days of Giveaways. So this time you’re like, well, what are we doing now? So I’m going to tell you!” she says.
And, after a commercial break, DeGeneres does indeed tell them. “We’re back with the Daniels family, who we’ve all grown very fond of around here,” she says. “We just couldn’t stop talking about you when I met you. And I just love your kids; I think they’re amazing.” Then the host explains what quality had drawn her to the family.
“What we love about y’all is that no matter what you’re struggling with, no matter how you’re living paycheck to paycheck, you still want to pay it forward, still help others,” DeGeneres says. “Even with the 12 Days of Giveaways, you helped somebody out at Walmart, right?” Christi had indeed done just that.
“It was a family behind me, and they had a newborn baby,” Christi confesses. “And I just paid for their items.” She goes on: “And we were doing little things before, but since the show, you have sparked something else in us. You make us want to do more, go really hard.” Unbeknown to the Daniels, though, DeGeneres is about to spring her surprise.
“We love you, but we’re not the only ones who love you,” the host tells the family. “We found some other people who love you.” So, as the Daniels family watch, footage plays of people who know them singing their praises to the cameras. They talk about the Daniels’ kindness and generosity to strangers.
“What makes Robert and Christi special? They could go to any party, and the party could be a zero,” says Pete Reece, a friend of theirs, in the footage. “By the time they step into the room, it’s 100.” Then, Robert’s sister, Sari, speaks up. “Having Robert as a brother has inspired me to want to be a better person,” she says.
And the praise just keeps coming. “When you find people who are truly genuine, you do have to hold them near and dear,” says another friend, Quiballah. Others speak of the difficulties that the family had faced over the years. “It’s been hard for them raising the four boys in the two-bedroom,” says Christi’s mother, Diane.
“Sometimes there’s things that they need,” Diane goes on. “It just was such a blessing when Ellen picked the video of them, and I’m so thankful to [her].” By the end of the footage, then, the Daniels family are understandably in tears. “I can tell that means a lot to you, that touches you a lot,” DeGeneres says. But there is more to come.
“You’re here because we’re going to do something big that we’ve never done for any family ever,” DeGeneres tells them. “It’s the biggest thing we’ve ever done.” Then she offers the Danielses some breathing exercises to calm them all down. “Let’s just take some breathing, just deep breathing,” the host says.
Christi is still very emotional about the video from her family and friends, though. “That was so special,” she tells DeGeneres. The host offers her some water at first – but then seems to change tack completely. “So, you like Cheerios?” she asks the family. “I love Cheerios.”
“It’s a wonderful cereal,” DeGeneres says of Cheerios. “It’s a wonderful company, because they put [out] a lot of positivity and make good go round in the world, because they really care about paying it forward. That’s their whole thing.” However, what Cheerios has to do with the Daniels family is yet to be made clear.
“I’ve gotten to know the people of Cheerios very well,” DeGeneres goes on. “Because I’m partnering with them for this pay it forward. They want to do two things for you, okay? The first thing they want to do is give you $500,000.” Robert and Christi then cry with joy as a man comes out with a giant check.
And yet, that still isn’t all! “That’s one thing,” DeGeneres announces. “We’re gonna take a break, and I’m gonna give you – we’ll come back and give you the other thing after this.” And after the commercials, that is exactly what happens. But first, the host delivers a quick catch-up for her audience.
“We’re back with the Daniels family,” DeGeneres says. “We just surprised them with $500,000 from Cheerios and that is going to take care of a lot. It’s going to take care of your debt, it is going to take care of college for your kids. You’re in a two-bedroom apartment; you can buy a house now.”
“Thank you so much, and thank you, Cheerios,” Christi says through tears. “I just have to tell you that you are a true humanitarian, and I love you,” her husband tells DeGeneres. “If nothing else, I just want to tell you from the bottom of my heart that we really, really love you, and we always have.” The host responds, “I love y’all, too.”
But the biggest surprise of all is still waiting. “So, I said we have two things, right?” DeGeneres checks. “Cheerios wants you to have $500,000 because they want you to take care of all your needs. But they love that you give back to the community. That’s why Cheerios is doing this, because they’re all about one million acts of good.”
“We’re always looking for people to write into us and tell us what they’re doing, because we want to spread this around in the world,” DeGeneres continues. “And they know that you love to pay it forward. So now, the $500,000 is for you. They’re giving you another $500,000 to pay it forward however you want.”
Christi and Robert are utterly shocked, and the audience erupts into cheers once more. Then another check is given to the family. “That’s one million!” DeGeneres shouts. “Look at that!” The applause and celebrations continue as the host brings out the extended Daniels family, who had been waiting in the wings the entire time.
Everyone then hugs and cries as the host speaks to the cameras. “A big thanks to Cheerios,” she says. “Cheerios, thank you so much. I’ll see you tomorrow!” It was a truly thrilling moment for DeGeneres fans everywhere. The million-dollar gift was, in fact, the largest the host had ever presented to one family.
DeGeneres also put news of the family’s generosity and their gift up on her social media. “I can’t think of a more deserving family to receive the biggest gift in the history of my show,” she wrote on her Twitter on February 7, 2019. Beneath the post people praised her, the show and the Daniels family.
“This is such a beautiful act of kindness! We are excited to see how they pay the money forward. You can tell that this family is genuinely excited to give to others!” wrote one person. “They deserve it all. So humble and full of love,” another said. One thing is for certain, then: the million dollars couldn’t have gone to better people.