Estella Pyfrom has proven that it's never too late to make a difference.
Pyfrom, who passed away on Dec. 29 at the age of 85 following a lengthy battle with leukemia, will be remembered as an energetic woman who dedicated her life to helping underserved children. In fact, she came out of retirement after 50 years of teaching in Florida’s Palm Beach County School district with a plan to bring computer technology to those who couldn’t afford it.
At the time, at the age of 72, she told her husband, fellow teacher and high school sweetheart Willie Pyfrom, that she had an idea about buying a bus that could travel to underprivileged kids so they could learn how to use the computer. Willie Pyfrom was reluctant to start a new venture when he was also about to retire, but he said, “She was a go-getter. She was excited about every moment of it.” He agreed to do everything he could to support her.
And so, in 2011 Miss Estella’s Brilliant Bus hit the road.
Pyfrom outfitted a tour bus with 17 state-of-the-art computer stations, and she drove it to nearby communities so that kids who didn’t have access to computers at home could learn everything from basic search skills to coding.
To date, the bus has served hundreds of thousands of students.
Pyfrom earned honors, accolades and funding for her work: she was a CNN Hero, she was invited to the White House by then-President Obama as one of President George H.W. Bush’s Points of Light, she was featured in a Microsoft Super Bowl commercial in 2015, she was a L’Oreal Woman of Worth nominee, she received “Toyota’s Standing O-vation Award” given by Oprah Winfrey…and Winfrey even wrote the forward for Pyfrom’s book.
Pyfrom’s son Juan said, “In some ways, the bus was a singular project: she was the bus. But we’re looking at ways to move it forward in some form. We’re really trying to make sure we don’t lose focus of the dream and are able to keep the dream alive in a way that would make her proud.”
A humble beginning
Pyfrom didn’t begin her career in the classroom—she got her start in the bean fields at a very young age. Pyfrom’s parents were migrant workers. They raised their seven children in Belle Glade, Florida, a hub for winter vegetable farming. The family would travel from Florida to upstate New York to follow seasonal crops: her father was a camp manager, her mother ran a sandwich station, the kids worked in the fields. Never one to sit back and relax, Pyfrom excelled at picking beans, keeping pace with adults more than twice her age.
Pyfrom worked just as hard at school as she did on the field. She earned her Master’s degree and began her lengthy career in education as a home economics teacher. She also worked as a classroom teacher, guidance counselor and school administrator. “At one time she told me she had four jobs,” said friend and journalist Daphne L. Taylor. “The Pyfroms worked hard to get ahead and then they took the money they had earned and made it work for them.”
The Pyfroms were very prudent with their income, and they used some of that money for investments and purchasing property. To make Miss Estella’s Brilliant Bus a reality, the Pyfroms used one million dollars of the money they so carefully saved for retirement to purchase the bus and equipment.
On the road
When Pyfrom first boarded her bus, she knew exactly where to go—the Glades.
A short drive from the Palm Beach mansions exists a small agricultural community known as the Glades. Home to a surprising number of NFL players, the Glades are the “stepchild of Palm Beach County,” said Taylor. Many families who reside in the Glades live below the poverty line, and making sure there is food on the table ranks higher than purchasing a computer and internet access.
Having grown up in Belle Glade, Pyfrom already knew its residents and their needs. She didn’t have to convince families that she was trying to help them—she was already active in the community and residents immediately saw the value in her offer to help. Willie Pyfrom said, “Having grown up as a migrant kid, she understood migrants and poor kids and hardworking field people. She was loved from Day One.”
Pyfrom’s son Juan said, “Because she had worked out in the Glades community, she saw that there was a void in getting kids access to computers. She intuitively understood that access to computers and technology was the wave of the future, and a lot of these kids were being left behind.”
Her mission was to empower children and families with lifelong learning skills by providing instruction and access to technology.
Enlisting the help of volunteer drivers, Pyfrom would head to underserved neighborhoods. “She would go to group homes, she would go to Title 1 schools, fairs, parks. She didn’t leave anything out. Some of it was well-orchestrated. Some of it was not,” said Taylor.
In short, Pyfrom organically located the bus wherever she could be of the most assistance to residents.
Pyfrom taught the students herself. She began with the basics—things as simple as learning to log on—and after Microsoft donated software, she taught Microsoft programs. She had used computers throughout her career in education, but once the idea for the bus started generating momentum, she began to teach herself—while in her 70s—how to code in order to teach others this very important skill. “She really did her homework,” Taylor said.
On a roll
Pyfrom didn’t just teach children—she also brought the bus to senior citizens and the homeless. She had already been serving this older population through the food pantry she ran with her husband. Once she had the bus ready to go, she began teaching them computer skills as well.
“She didn't really have an age limit,” said Taylor. “And that's what she loved—that it was multi-range, from tiny tots all the way up to senior citizens.”
Pyfrom never stopped trying to help anyone and everyone she could with her seemingly limitless internal drive. Her husband said, “All the time, she was at the computer. I would wake up in the morning and she was there. I would wake up at midnight and she was there.”
Her legacy lives on in the scores of children she taught and people she helped, in her four children (three of whom work in educational fields), in her 13 grandchildren, three great-grandchildren and in the groundwork she laid for others to carry on.
Her son said, “There’s still a lot more to be done in this same area with her interest in mind.”