Sixteen third-graders file into the wondrous classroom and plop into their seats. Computers are tantalizingly within reach, but the kids know not to touch them until vital preliminaries are addressed.
“Good morning, boys and girls,” Estella Pyfrom calls out. “Good morning!” the children yell back in unison. The high-pitched chorus, while deafening, is nothing compared to what comes next. It’s a mantra that Pyfrom wants the children not just to remember, but to believe. “Now repeat after me,” one of Pyfrom’s helpers instructs. “When I look in the mirror, what do I see? A brilliant mind looking at me.”
Three times the children chant the words back at her, each time growing louder until their voices drown out the generator powering their aptly named classroom: Estella’s Brilliant Bus.
For roughly three years, the white bus, outfitted with 17 computer stations, featuring high-speed Internet access, a giant TV monitor and swivel chairs, has rolled into schools, neighborhood centers and community events in poor South Florida neighborhoods.
During that time, Pyfrom and a cadre of volunteers have given more than 30,000 children hands-on experience with technology, plus an engaging way to learn spelling, reading, science and math.
In the process, by repeatedly telling them that they—not just the bus—are brilliant, she hopes to change the way they think about themselves.
Pyfrom, turning 78 in December, says similar words from her father fueled her one-woman mission that has won accolades from the White House and top rungs of the business world, as well as from educators who have watched her work. “My father made us think if you believe you can do something, you can make it happen,” says Pyfrom, who seems to be in constant motion. “He made us believe we couldn’t fail. If you were willing to work at it, you could make it reality.”
Never mind that when her father offered the advice, Pyfrom, her brother and five sisters were picking beans on the migrant farmworkers’ circuit, from poverty-racked Belle Glade, Fla., to upstate New York. Accepting her father’s advice, she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Florida A&M University in Tallahassee before returning to Belle Glade to give back.
But even after a career in education that spanned nearly five decades, the mother of four decided she hadn’t given enough. Pyfrom knew that there were still too many children who had little to no computer access and who, without that training, probably would not be able to make their way into the world they deserved.
Scribbling her vision for the bus on paper, she and her husband, Willie, a longtime high school band director, contacted a Nevada company that customizes buses. Told that her bus dream was possible, the couple dipped into their retirement accounts and used savings accumulated over the years through side jobs and careful investments. With the slogan, “We Bring Learning to You,” Estella’s Brilliant Bus hit the road.
Pyfrom estimates that she and her husband have spent nearly $1 million on the bus, which guzzles roughly $1,000 in fuel a month traveling throughout Palm Beach County. “I went in with the attitude that there are no ifs. I know I have to do this,” she says.
Her can-do approach has not gone unnoticed. In 2013 she was invited to the White House to accept a Point of Light Award, and CNN named her one of its Top 10 Heroes of that year—an honor dedicated to ordinary people doing extraordinary work in their communities. She has received dozens of awards, including ones from Women of Worth, sponsored by L’Oréal Paris, and JM Family Enterprises, the Southeast’s largest Toyota distributorship. She estimates the awards and the recognition, which started when her bus was featured on NBC’s Nightly News with Brian Williams, have pumped about $200,000 into her cause.
But Pyfrom is far from content.
Already involved in a weekly meals program affiliated with Feeding America, she sees the bus as the ultimate vehicle for change. Pyfrom is trying to form partnerships with other groups, such as a local medical society, so the bus can become a full-service resource center where children can receive or at least sign up for vaccinations, eye exams and hearing tests, and their parents can apply for food stamps, take parenting classes and possibly learn to use computers themselves. “By the end of 2015, my goal is to have four buses.”
Pyfrom says her program, using online curriculum that works for people of all ages and abilities, can be replicated anyplace with Internet access. She wants to help others start their versions elsewhere.
She jump-started her program by spreading the word through community groups. Guarn Sims, principal of Village Academy in Delray Beach, says he heard Pyfrom speak at a meeting of educators and immediately contacted her about working together. “I was just amazed by what she was doing and how it meshes with what we are trying to do,” says Sims, whose school serves 1,000 impoverished students from preschoolers to seniors in high school. All are eligible for federally funded free or reduced-price lunches. “She’s addressing the digital divide that exists in low-income neighborhoods. Most of my kids don’t have computers at home,” Sims says. “The bus is the most simplistic idea, but it’s most effective. That’s why it’s a brilliant idea.”
Boarding a bus parked outside Village Academy is like a field trip. It’s much more exciting than the school’s overburdened computer lab, where time is hard to book, says teacher Caridad Medina, after her third-graders had spent about 45 minutes practicing vocabulary on the bus computers. “It’s a great opportunity for the kids to work on reading and math skills,” Medina says.
One of her students, 9-year-old Jerome Mitchell, agrees. “It helps me a lot,” he says. That the computer talks back to him via headphones makes learning fun, so “you’re not just reading by yourself.”
In addition to Pyfrom, four volunteers, all dressed in royal-blue polo shirts emblazoned with the bus logo, traveled to Village Academy. Patrick Morris, a 49-year-old father of four from Lake Worth, says he’s been driving the bus about two years. “You see how the kids not only enjoy it but benefit from it,” he says. “As a parent, that’s what you want.”
Pyfrom has about 45 volunteers working with her around the county. “I don’t recruit them; they just come to me,” she says, crediting the support to her years as an educator and her longtime community service to various boards and groups.
But Pyfrom insists the real key to her success is simple: She saw a need, came up with an idea, pursued it and encouraged others to join her.
As she tells the brilliant kids as they get on the Brilliant Bus: “All aboard!”