Estella Pyfrom started picking beans when she was six years old, doing her part in a family of migrant workers. On the road from Florida to New York, they lived in barns and on the first night her father would hammer together beds from kindling wood. Estella’s mother ran a sandwich wagon for the field workers.
It is a family tradition to strive. Estella, a tomboy, was proud of being able to fill 65 baskets a day.
Estella Pyfrom's bus. (J. Gwendolynne Berry/The Palm Beach Post)
But her father, whose education ended at fourth grade, wanted something better for his six daughters. “We didn’t miss very much time from school, only when we were traveling on the road,” she recalled.
And when Estella grew up, she got a master’s degree and taught in the Palm Beach County school district for 50 years.
But five years ago, after her husband, fellow teacher and high school sweetheart Willie Pyfrom recovered from a long illness, Estella decided it was time to retire. She may have been in her early 70s then but, as family and friends attest, she is not the retiring type.
And she had this idea.
She wanted to buy a bus, a great big bus, not for herself, not for recreation, but to continue serving kids, as she had been doing her entire career.
After years of working in the school district, plus a few good investments and a couple of side jobs, the Pyfroms had set aside a comfortable retirement nest egg. Using those accumulated savings, she bought a bus and outfitted it with 17 computer stations and a generator that allows the bus to run for hours when she parks it at a school or a community center.
“Miss Estella’s Brilliant Bus,” as she labeled it, initially cost $450,000, but with extensive modifications and ongoing expenses, the running total is now closer to $900,000. “If it wasn’t for this bus, we’d be in Europe right now,” she says, laughing.
She will make her final payment in November.
“Things will be easier then,” she says, with characteristic understatement.
First step: Get on the bus
Estella Pyfrom is a driven woman.
For years, she and her husband ran group homes on the side. They started a food program that now feeds 3,000 people a month. She sold insurance, and worked on numerous community boards for the disadvantaged and the disabled. She was a guardian ad litem and a court-certified mediator.
The Pyfroms still run a food pantry. She sleeps about four hours, getting up early to do paperwork at her Wellington home, where some of her 11 grandchildren live down the street.
At an age when people complain about aches and pains, she looks for more to do.
“I’d rather she sip tea with my dad, but this is what fuels her,” said Juan Pyfrom, an Army colonel who practices military law in Miami. “That’s what keeps her strong and vibrant and energetic. You don’t see that many 76-year-olds that have that kind of drive.”
Estella was born into a segregated United States. She worked her way past discrimination and made a success of her life. She takes great pleasure in the fact that her children have succeeded too.
But it’s hard to forget that as a young migrant farm worker she was invisible. No one in the wider world expected anything from her, but her parents did, and so did she.
The kids she worked with, and works with now, are part of the broad invisible area of the school system, those who are getting by but having a hard time. Like Estella, they have dreams, and she is going to help them get there, one vocabulary word, one percentage point, at a time, if that’s what it takes.
But first, they have to get on the bus.
‘We bring learning to you’
As the big bus makes the tight turn down a narrow street in western Lake Worth, the “Dead End” sign might seem a dire prediction. In the twilight, a group of teenagers is ambling down the street, which is bounded by a small park and a row of small homes.
The mission of “Miss Estella’s Brilliant Bus” is to eliminate dead ends, as in lack of access to the internet, the basic tool of the 21st Century. As in difficulty reading, when the education system is built on reading.
From Riviera Beach to Lake Worth to West Palm Beach to Pahokee, from kindergartners to high school seniors, if they need her help, she is driving the bus to them. The bus is on the road three to four days a week, plus some weekends for special events. In a year, it provides 8,000 hours of instruction to about 500 children, including 317 just in Pahokee, where the bus spends a whole day once a week, for third-, fourth- and fifth-graders. The bus also has a summer camp program.
It is toward the Brilliant Bus that the teens are headed. It is parked next to the Lake Worth West Community Center, which offers a spectrum of tutoring and social services for kids in the surrounding neighborhoods.
“We bring learning to you” is emblazoned on the side of the Brilliant Bus. Inside is an air-conditioned narrow classroom with the 17 computer stations. The kids climb onto the bus. Under Miss Estella’s watchful eye, a few surrender their chewing gum to a small wastebasket before they sit down.
“We don’t chew gum in here,” she says.
This is, after all, a classroom and, in a way, it is also the equivalent of her home, since she paid for every inch of it, so best behavior is required, not optional.
No gum and no Facebook. And yet they come back, week after week.
“Once a teenager gets to know something, it spreads like wildfire,” said Maria Omana, site administrator at the community center. “They’re like little guppies. If they see something interesting, they go to it.”
These computers are loaded with educational software that measures progress, links up with state-mandated curriculum material, readies the kids for FCAT testing and tracks their progress against their own scores and those of every other student in the state.
“She does such a great job,” says Carol Clinton, executive director of the community center, as a group of students from Tradewinds Middle School climbs onboard the Brilliant Bus. “She’s a delight to know.”
The bus would be a dead end if it were the kids’ only contact with the Internet and interactive educational software. So Estella has arranged for them to take home brochures from Comcast that explain a $9.95-a-month affordable Internet plan, a $149 computer and free Internet training, available to families of children eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches. Those are the kids that she brings her bus to, building her own bridge over the digital divide.
The purpose of the software at the computer stations on the bus is to bring kids up to grade level in reading, vocabulary and related skills. It teaches them how to use context to guess a word’s meaning. It keeps them at each level until they reach 90 percent proficiency.
It’s not all software, of course. Estella and her volunteer helper and driver Patrick Morris make their way from one student to another, encouraging and praising. Clinton and Omana also help out when the bus is at their center.
Shania Robertson, 12, finds the learning software simultaneously frustrating and fun. As often happens, her grades dipped when she made the transition from elementary to middle school. So she got on the bus and her scores are rising again.
Demetrius Bourdeau, 13, said his scores on the learning program started in the 60s and now he’s past 80 and heading for 100. He wants to be a football player, but “my mom told me to have a second plan to be a doctor.”
Helping others drives Estella
Miss Estella’s bus is the logical outgrowth of her lifelong mission to help other people. During her years in the school system, she worked all over Palm Beach County, mostly with kids who came from poor families, who needed encouragement and attention.
It wasn’t just about education. One of her students back then had terribly bent legs. “They were like an O,” she said, using her cupped hands to show. Estella arranged for the boy to have surgery to repair his legs. He and other former students, all grown up now, still stop Estella on the street to thank her and catch up.
Eva Bowers, a schoolteacher, worked with her in Belle Glade.
“She took an interest in exceptionally bright children and mentally disabled children,” said Bowers, who retired after 44 years in the school system. “She was down-to-earth and she had a genuine interest in people, parents as well as children. She would try to meet them where they were. She reared her family to be that way too. They all reach out to other people.”
But the bus may have never come about if not for her husband’s illness five years ago. Willie Pyfrom was in the hospital for months, enduring three surgeries and 26 blood transfusions. Estella refused to leave his side, sitting in the intensive care unit with him, scrutinizing the monitors as if her husband’s life depended on it.
The close call, and her family’s worrying about her driving back from Belle Glade so many nights after dark, combined to bring about her decision to retire.
“At her retirement dinner, I was chatting with Mr. Pyfrom and I said, ‘It’s so beautiful to know you and she fell in love as teenagers,’” said Bowers. “She was across the room, enjoying herself, and he looked over at her and said, ‘Estella is all I ever wanted.’”
Love, faith, family and religion play their parts in the Pyfrom family, but not in the ways you might expect.
“She’s not a Bible thumper,” said Bowers. “She practices what she believes in her heart and mind. She was called to teach, to bring the best out of people. You can see the spirit of the Lord in her.”
The Bible is full of injunctions to go out and do good works, to shine one’s light in a troubled world. Miss Estella is shining her light on the kids on the bus. She revels when they bring their scores up a point or two. But, with the educator’s fine balance of praise and prodding, she patiently explains to them how to do better on the next diagnostic or spelling or reading exercise.
They will succeed, she explains, but they will have to work to do so.
“One boy said to me, ‘I passed, so why do I have to keep on doing it?’ and I told him, “’The more you work on it, the better it will get. Stay on it.”
I was born in Oklahoma and raised in California in a small desert town on a farm. I was blessed to come from a strong, hard working and balanced family who believed in me and supported me in all my endeavors.
At 15 years old I started a cleaning company because I didn’t want to work for anyone else. I was determined to have something of my own, but at that age, I didn’t have many resources. So I bought some mops and buckets and walked a mile to an assisted living community where I knocked on doors for clients. That’s where Gigi’s Cleaning Company was born.
My real dream was to become a singer/songwriter. I started vocal lessons, put a band together and began doing my own shows and making demo tapes. I’d clean during the day and at night I’d sing -- anywhere. We performed anywhere from biker bars to senior citizen homes.
In 1994, I sold my little cleaning business, and with all my bills paid and $500 cash in my hand, I moved to Nashville. No job, no apartment and no friends were waiting for me in Nashville, but I knew in my heart that God would take care of me. I found a job at Red Lobster as a waitress and began building up a few cleaning clients. I would clean during the day, wait tables and sing at night. I performed at some of Nashville’s top tourist night spots like Tootsie’s and The Stage on Broadway in downtown Nashville and also did some touring for several years.
When I turned 30, singing until 3:00am and working for tips wasn’t too appealing for me. While it was very hard and it felt like a loss of a dream, I decided to retire from the music industry. At that time, I felt like a failure for a while, and it’s amazing how God can heal all wounds. I decided to then expand my cleaning business and hired several employees to help serve my clients. I was really happy and at peace finally in my life.
Then, in September 2007, my brother Steve went to New York City and stood in line for two hours at one of New York's famous cupcake shops. He called me while eating the Red Velvet Cupcakes. “These aren’t as good as yours and mom’s. You should open a cupcake shop in Nashville!” Steve told me.
Nashville is a very progressive city but it also supports local businesses, so I thought, Why not? It’s not like I haven’t stepped out on faith before and God has always taken care of me. I come from a long line of bakers, from my mother, grandma and great-grandmother to my great aunts who had bakeries in Oklahoma where I was born.
I made my decision. I would do it. Now it was time to get my business going and I needed a loan. Even though I had excellent credit, no debt and some savings, I approached four different banks that all laughed in my face and said, “A cupcake shop, are you kidding?” But I persisted and found a wonderful banker who helped me get cash advance loans on my credit cards with lower interest rates and I took a $100,000 cash advance loan to get my business started. Wow, I was scared!
Some of my friends were pharmaceutical sales reps and I told them I was going to open a cupcake shop. I began baking in my home first and taking a few orders from my friends for their medical staff visits. I would clean during the day and bake 12 dozen cupcakes at night in my little kitchen. That’s where I came up with most of my creations.
The day before I opened Gigi’s, I was struggling. I had to clean three houses just to pay the plumber for the shop. Then, while my mother was cleaning and my dad was putting the chairs together in the shop, my contractor came in with a bill he forgot to give me. It was a $15,000 dry wall bill! I had a melt down! How was I going to do this? My parents dropped everything, hugged me and told me that all would be well. God would take care of me.
When all was said and done, I had $33 left in my checking account and no money for advertising the day we opened our doors on February 21, 2008. People started trickling in and soon a line formed at the door. By March 1st, I had to pay $4,000 in rent, my food bill and my employees in that first week. I paid it all and had $300 left.
Shortly after we opened, my landlord, Alan Thompson, whose background is in franchising, kept saying, “You should franchise your concept.” So, together with him, my dad helping with the store build outs, my mom creating the recipes with me, and my brother Randall coming on board to direct operations, we were set to start franchising the Gigi’s Cupcakes brand. It was more than I could have ever imagined doing when I started the business. Today, about five years later, we have built 84 Gigi’s Cupcakes locations in 23 states, and we are continuing to expand. My dream for Gigi's Cupcakes is to work with local owners to help them achieve their dreams as they bring cupcakes to families in their markets.
If I can convey just one idea to someone reading my story, it would be to believe in yourself, walk with integrity, work hard and trust in God. And maybe your life won’t turn out exactly how you were expecting or hoping it to be; but maybe, just maybe, it will be so much better than you could have ever imagined!
With God, all things are possible!
Well, well u did again Ministry Mark, I enjoy read the ur website. It going to get better every time u stay on the path that God has chosen for you . U about blow up and u even see it come to u. From your sister in the lord. All that u have pray to God about . He has alright answer u. Stay Focurs now my son.
Alicia-New York City
Bless you and your ministry.
Apostle Cherly Jackson-Perry