After over 4,000 trips with Uber and Lyft combined in the University of Arizona area, Nicole Ochotorena, aka Mama Bear, has no regrets about getting fired from Circle K.
Ochotorena was fired from her previous job for being too friendly. She said she would take customers who walked in drunk and belligerent and have them walk out feeling happier and less drunk.
Some of those talks took hours on end.
“People would come in drunk and angry demanding beer,” she said. “I would talk them down, and by the time they left, they wouldn’t be drunk or angry.”
According to Ochotorena, her boss was not happy about this.
However, being too friendly is not a bad quality for an Uber driver, according to her son.
“I guess that’s why the kids want me do to it — because I’m very friendly,” Ochotorena said.
Her family stresses she has “a heart of gold.” Her husband Alex Ochotorena remembers her being kind since the day they met.
“She’s just a kind-hearted person, she’s always been like that,” Alex Ochotorena said. “If she can help out people, she will help them out. If she sees homeless people in the streets, she will give them water and food. It’s just the way she’s been since I have known her.”
That golden heart was molded through her peers making fun of her. As a child she was called scar-face, and it wasn’t an homage to Al Pacino’s Tony Montana.
Ochotorena said she was involved in a car accident in her home state of Indiana that paralyzed the right side of her body, ruptured her spleen, caused head trauma and left scars across her body.
“They would call me fat, ugly, scar-face and other horrible names,” she said. “But karma has a way at getting back. One of the girls who used to call me fat and say I would never get a man is now bigger than I am.”
Yet Ochotorena said she refused to let the damage bring her spirits down.
“My brain decided, well, we’re not going to do this,” she said. “I know everyone wants to figure out their purpose. But mine is here helping these kids.”
Ochotorena calls the kids “chil-vains.” This is because the UA riders she drives around are not her children, but when they are in the car, “they are just chillin’ like villains,” according to Ochotorena.
According to UA student Raquel Glasser, the name “Mama Bear” certainly fits Ochotorena.
“She is willing to drop whatever she has going on to go and pick us up, which is probably the most amazing thing,” Glasser said.
Ochotorena’s love for her passengers can be seen in her car as well. As she rolls down the street in her Dodge Journey, her hood is adorned with the UA’s iconic Wildcat logo.
The inside of the SUV is lit up with dancing lights and a UA flag in the back seat. “You have to make sure people know your spirit,” she said.
In addition to her car being decked out in lights and UA gear, Ochotorena takes a different approach to the rideshare industry.
She became “Mama Bear” to act as a “guardian” to students who are away from their own families, Ochotorena said.
Glasser said she was in the market to find a safe Uber driver when she was paired up with Ochotorena.
The driver’s fun and protective personality encouraged her to ask for Ochotorena’s phone number, and she has been a regular customer since.
“She wanted to take us where we needed to go in the safest way possible,” Glasser said. “Since our families aren’t here to watch over us, she is the one that wants to take over that and protect us.”
Ochotorena gives out custom-made business cards with the hood of her SUV on the front of it with her number and a message for her future regular customers.
“Keeping you safe,” the card reads.
This is a mantra Ochotorena takes to heart.
She often works 12-hour days back-to-back, sometimes being on the road from 5:30 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. Some weekends, she even works a 24-hour shift to drive everyone home safely.
“If the kids need me before, then all they have to do is call me,” she said.
She’s often willing to drop her own schedule to prioritize her riders, Glasser said.
“She is doing this purely out of love for all of us,” Glasser said.
Ochotorena was always worried about getting the kids safely from point A to point B, her husband said, which Ochotorena demonstrates nightly.
“All these kids need is a little bit of love, and they’ll give you tenfold of the love you get them. They will love you unconditionally,” Ochotorena said.
This love she gives is the reason she has a 4.96 out of 5 stars on the Uber app out of the past 500 rides she has given, according to her profile page on the Uber Driver app.
On Lyft, she has a perfect 5-star rating out of the 895 rides she has given, according to her profile page on the Lyft Driver App.
Her reviews are filled with descriptions of Ochotorena being “spunky” and “amazing at keeping a conversation rolling.” They also speak volumes of her being the best driver her riders have ever had.
Her high rating comes in part from her view that a ride is about more than what goes on inside the car.
“I will literally get out of my car, and if somebody is fighting with [a rider], I get involved,” she said.
With each ride, she said she makes efforts to ensure her riders feel completely safe. She said her policy is simple: Riders respect her car, and she gives them the same respect in return.
“I don’t care if you have a wheelchair, if you have a bike, if you have a dog, if you have a cat, anything you can fit in my car ... I will not turn you away,” she said.
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