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Serving Richmond Students Where the Rubber Meets the Road: Q&A with Damon Jiggetts

In Richmond, Virginia, 86 percent of students don't take part in after-school activities—in many cases because they have no way of getting there. Damon Jiggetts, executive director of the Peter Paul Development Center and a 2019 Rubinger Fellow, has devised a new kind of bus company that could change all that, connecting youth to the kind of enrichment every child deserves.

In Richmond, VA, only 14 percent of students participate in after-school activities. Just about everyone agrees that many more young people could benefit from taking part, whether in sports or arts enrichment or homework help.

But there’s a big roadblock here: access to these activities depends on literal access, a way to get participants from school to program site and back home again in the evenings. And the current transportation system, provided mainly by Richmond Public Schools (RPS), is already taxed to the limit.

Enter Damon Jiggetts, executive director of the Peter Paul Development Center, a community hub serving Richmond’s East End and a flagship provider of programming for young people. As a 2019 Rubinger Fellow, Jiggetts is designing a startup bus company—a for-profit social enterprise—specifically for taking students where they need to go outside school hours, safely and efficiently.

How did you determine that Richmond needs a specialized transportation service like the one you’re planning?

Over the last ten-plus years there’s been this growing coalition of out-of-school providers and we’ve been trying to better coordinate, not duplicate, services and very intentionally create a system of care. Richmond isn’t necessarily resource-poor in that way—there are plenty of programs. But you hear parents say, “Man, I wish my kid could participate, but they can’t get there.”

These are parents who have to coordinate all kinds of things to make it all work. A lot of the jobs that our families have, they don’t have the luxury of being able to leave work to go pick up their kid and take them someplace. Transportation as a whole for the city of Richmond, whether you’re talking about access to employment opportunities or anything else, has been an ongoing challenge. It’s something the city is working aggressively to address with bus rapid transit, but the routes don’t quite make it into the communities that need it the most.

The demand is definitely there for families, and even more so on the part of the nonprofit providers. They’d rather not acquire the buses and have those assets on their books. Finding and retaining bus drivers is another headache for the nonprofit community. For Richmond Public Schools, their obligation is to transport kids to and from school. They’d rather not maintain the infrastructure to coordinate transportation after school. And they’re having to pay drivers time-and-a-half, another added expense.

Is there a way to make a new system affordable?

Currently some nonprofits have their own transportation and some don’t. So right now a nonprofit working with Richmond Public Schools will say, “Hey, we’re running a program in one of your school facilities. Can you transport our kids home in the evenings?” And RPS is going to charge that nonprofit whatever their going rate is. Generally speaking, it’s around $40 an hour.

The confidence that LISC has shown in providing me with the financial and technical support to deliver this model speaks volumes to our stakeholders.

In my cost-sharing model, the school district would incur savings by not having to pay overtime, and by removal of certain high-priced transportation companies that they’re currently using. I’m going to be asking for a fraction of that savings to go to this pool of resources to support the system. The district will no longer pay top dollar for transportation as they’re doing now, because they’re sharing the cost.

So what’s in it for the drivers?

For one thing, a living wage. Our public transportation system starts out paying their bus drivers with commercial driving licenses about $14 to $15 an hour. It’s the same or a little less with the school district. It goes up over time, but the bus drivers don’t stay—they’ll end up going out to the county school district because they’re paying them $1.50 more. We’re hoping to address that by offering drivers, coming out of the gate, a minimum of $16 an hour. What I’m hoping to do, if I can figure out my price points, is to eventually get closer to $20 an hour.

The other thing I’m researching now is some kind of shared ownership model, an owner-operator model. If you were one of my bus drivers, hopefully you would be from the community in which you would be transporting kids. And so you get a chance to get out to community events and promote your service, and to help promote the programs within the community. As long as you’re keeping your bus on the road, you’re getting paid. And I want you as a bus driver to help me with that.

What about the fleet itself? How do you acquire buses?

That’s the big piece. And that’s where I would want to lean back on LISC or someone who knows how to work with investors. We have a couple of angel investors around town and I’d prefer to get an investment option as opposed to getting a bank loan.

I’m thinking about what a launch looks like. Is it something that’s at a smaller scale, one to five buses, or do I start out very large, upwards of 40 buses, to cover the existing students? The need is out there and I’d want to be able to respond pretty quickly.

Have there been any big surprises in this learning process?

I had no idea that this would evolve to the extent that it has. I was thinking I could provide a service and be done with it. Now I’m seeing a business take shape, an opportunity for people in this community to actually do well by doing good. That’s really exciting to me.

How has the Rubinger Fellowship enhanced or supported your work?

The Rubinger Fellowship has created a level of credibility. The confidence that LISC has shown in providing me with the financial and technical support to deliver this model speaks volumes to our stakeholders. And the fellowship has given me the confidence and accountability structure to really focus on the project. So the ultimate benefit is that more of Richmond’s youth will have access to the kinds of programs that support them on a path to positive, productive futures.

Rubinger Community Fellowship

They come from all corners of the country, and all share a deep commitment to helping their communities thrive. Meet the 2019 Fellows. 

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