The Mattie C. Stewart Foundation Choice Bus is a sort of time machine – a glimpse into a future without an education.
Last week, the Choice Bus visited Pocahontas County High School, Green Bank Elementary-Middle School and Marlinton Middle School. The program reaches out to middle and high school students, showing the importance of a high school education in a unique way.
The Choice Bus is a school bus split in half – the front is a regular school bus and the back half is a prison cell.
Choice Bus presenter Lynn Smelley has been with the foundation from its inception in 2007. He was joined at the schools by presenter John Paul Taylor.
“We travel all over the United States speaking to students about staying in school, making the right choices and making the right decisions in their lives,” Smelley said. “That’s the thing that is important is helping these students understand that there’s a better way. Our goal is to reach as many students as we can and help everyone increase the graduation rate across the United States.”
After students boarded the bus and took a seat, Smelley explained how the foundation began and the purpose of the Choice Bus.
“As we travel, people want to know, ‘who is Mattie C. Stewart,” Smelley said. “Really for us, it starts with her son, Shelley Stewart. Shelley was five-years-old when he saw his mother killed by his father. Then, at seven-years-old, as a result of that, he wound up homeless.”
At seven-years-old, Stewart was saved by a teacher and her faith in his ability to rise above.
“There was a teacher that came to him and said, ‘Shelly, you’re going to learn how to read. You get your education – you can be anything you want to be, do anything you want to do and you can get out of this situation,’” Smelley said. “Shelley took that to heart and that’s exactly what he did. [He] chose to believe in himself and as a result, became successful. In fact, one of the most successful African American businessmen in the United States.”
Stewart started the Mattie C. Foundation to honor his mother as a way to help children the way a teacher helped him.
As part of the Choice Bus, students watched a video featuring interviews with prisoners who are also high school dropouts. One girl, who was 19 at the time of the taping, joined the wrong crowd when she was 14 and ended up sentenced to seven years in prison.
The prisoner said that if she had stayed in school and had become friends with students that were focused on education, she wouldn’t be in the situation she is today.
The presentation ends with a tour of the cramped prison cell, equipped with a set of bunk-beds welded to the wall and a latrine/sink combo from an actual prison.
Smelley explained that sometimes a cell the same size of the space in the bus has four beds, making the space even more cramped for the men and women who must live in it.
“We create tools for teachers,” he said. “We talk to them about careers and the future, and what they would do with their careers in the future. We tell hem how much better they will do if they stay in school.”
The Choice Bus was brought to the county through the Dropout Prevention Innovation Zone grant and the Pocahontas County Prevention Coalition.
Prevention Coalition director Cheryl Jonese said she hopes the program will open the eyes of students who have thought about dropping out of school.
“Only 70 out of 100 students that enter the ninth grade end up graduating,” Jonese said. “One of the kids said yesterday, ‘oh is this that thing where you try to scare us into staying in school?’ and I said ‘we’re not trying to scare you.’ We’re trying to give them some information. It’s real. We’re working on preventing dropouts.”
For more information on The Mattie C. Stewart Foundation, visit www.mattiecstewart.org