Consider what it would be like to be living in a completely different culture, 9,000 miles from home, friends and family. If that’s not stressful enough, add to it the experience of starting a new job and realizing there is no transportation available to get you to and from work, the grocery store or any type of entertainment.
That’s exactly the type of situation 16 teachers from India might have found if it were not for the Allendale County Scooter, a small but effective coordinated transit system in rural South Carolina.
This group of teachers is part of a U.S. State Department-sponsored exchange program to supplement teacher shortages in poor, rural school districts. They arrived in the town of Allendale last September to begin life in an area severely plagued by economic problems.
Allendale once enjoyed a bustling local economy made possible by thousands of beach-bound tourists traveling south on U.S. Highway 301. Unfortunately, commerce in the town declined rapidly as travelers were diverted 35 miles away when Interstate 95 opened. The area has experienced a steadily declining population ever since and now has some of the worst healthcare and employment statistics in the state.
Living as far apart as 600 miles back in India, none of the teachers knew each other before they came to the United States. When they arrived in Allendale, they quickly became a family, offering one another a great deal of support. They constantly worked together to solve the problems that came with adjusting to a foreign environment.
Several of the teachers work at Fairfax Elementary School, teaching math and special education to students in kindergarten through sixth grade. The rest teach math, science and special education to ninth through twelfth grades at Allendale-Fairfax High School. Finding transportation to and from these jobs was one of the most pressing issues they faced after moving to the area.
Christina Jyothi expresses how frustrating it was for her and her coworkers when they realized there were very few transportation options in the area. “Even in the most rural areas of India we have public transportation,” she says. “It’s very easy to get around, and we can go anywhere. We are also used to walking but here no one walks; everyone is in a car.”
Allendale County has only about 10,000 residents in more than 400 square miles. With one of the lowest population densities in the state, having a good public transit system is a tall order. One teacher, Sally Thomas, considered moving to Varnville, a nearby community with more to offer in the way of shopping and entertainment, but she remained in Allendale because of the availability of the Scooter.
A coordinated solution
Thanks to the Lower Savannah Council of Governments and the Lowcountry Regional Transportation Authority — a dedicated group of volunteers, agency representatives and elected officials — the Allendale County Scooter was created in June 2004 to help fill some of the area’s transportation needs. A community task force was established and worked diligently for more than a year to create the new coordinated system.
The first of its kind in South Carolina, the Scooter utilizes existing seats on transit vehicles that would normally be empty during traditional use. Since its creation, the Scooter has doubled its ridership, and customers have traveled more than 30,000 miles.
Operation of the Scooter is dependent upon funding from a variety of sources. The Federal Transit Administration, the South Carolina Department of Transportation, Allendale County Alive, the Sisters of Charity, the James E. Clyburn University Transportation Center and South Carolina State University all contribute financial assistance to the program.
According to teacher George Mariadas, the group of Indian exchange teachers is extremely thankful for the system. “When we came to Allendale, we were like small babies, and the Scooter became our legs,” he says. “The people here understood our problem and helped us.”
Mariadas is committed to the teaching profession and enjoys working with American students. But he admits that he doesn’t understand why more funding isn’t devoted to public transit in South Carolina. The ardent support from Mariadas and his fellow teachers makes it hard to imagine why any political official would turn down a request to fund transportation programs such as the Scooter that contribute to a better life for so many people.
Support and praise
Everyone in the exchange program has been very enthusiastic about having a say in how much they enjoy using the Scooter. They especially appreciate the personal attention offered by Scott Donahue, mobility manager for the Scooter, and Lillie Penn, transportation supervisor.
Donahue says he appreciates the opportunity to work with those who are devoted to improving transportation options in rural areas. “The Office on Aging is the primary source of the vehicles the Scooter uses to transport our passengers,” he says. “It is key that [Penn] and I are on the same page so all clients can reach their destinations.”
Penn not only helps coordinate trips but also substitutes as a driver when needed. Her creative talents were put to good use as designer of the Scooter mascot’s costume for a kick-off event last July.
The teachers also agree that one of the best things about the Scooter is the opportunity to get to know the drivers. Gigi Varghese, a special-education teacher at the elementary school, says the drivers do a great job of making her feel comfortable and safe. Although two of the teachers now have driver’s licenses, they all prefer to sit back, relax and enjoy the scenery while the drivers do all the work.
On a recent trip to Charleston, where they went for testing, the driver treated the teachers to short tours of each area. Several of the teachers are now making arrangements to reserve a return trip to Charleston so they can take more time to learn about the city’s history.
Perfecting rural public transit
The teachers appreciate the welcome they have received in the community. According to State Department rules, teachers are allowed to stay in the U.S. for three years before they have to return home. Many of the teachers say they plan to stay for the full three-year term, and they are hoping funding will remain available for the Scooter for at least the next few years.
The local school district, for one, has made every effort to ensure an easy transition for the group and is happy with the way the transportation issues have been solved. “The Scooter made what would have been a difficult situation doable,” says Paula Harris, state district school superintendent. She says the Scooter provides a much-needed way for county residents to get to work and healthcare facilities.
“Allendale County has the lowest number of people who own cars in the state,” Harris says. “Many of our citizens need dependable transportation, and I am very pleased this type of service is available, not only for our teachers but for everyone.”