Students Move into Fast Lane with Drivers Licenses
College helps eligible women remove barriers to obtaining a license
In 2007, Denise Jones answered a phone call that would change her life. Her sister excitedly told her she was settling down in a new city called Appleton and wanted Denise to join her.
“She was going on and on about how great Appleton was, so I came for a visit,” Denise explained. “I had no reason to move to Appleton. I didn’t even know this place existed.”
In one short visit, Denise learned enough to consider moving herself and her two children from Indiana to Wisconsin. A deeply spiritual woman, Denise said she prayed for guidance about what to do. Ultimately, she believes she was destined to make the journey. Denise knew there were challenges ahead, but she leaned heavily on her faith to see her through.
From fear in Indiana to faith in Wisconsin
Growing up in Indiana, Denise faced many heartaches as a child. After giving birth at the age of 14, she never went back to school and never learned to drive a car.
“I grew up in fear,” Denise shared. “I saw so many obstacles I didn’t think I could overcome. I never stepped foot back in a classroom. I was afraid of driving because my mother never drove and my father was not around to teach me.”
Several years after moving her family to Appleton, she says her fears were replaced by faith when someone told her about Fox Valley Technical College. Denise started the Adult Education program at FVTC. After earning her High School Equivalency Diploma (HSED), an instructor introduced Denise to an opportunity to get her driver’s license through FVTC.
Success in Motion gets moving
The Success in Motion driving program came together with the help of several community partners, driving instructors and local grant dollars. The grassroots effort was launched after Kara Nowak, a counselor in Student Services, saw the same barrier tripping up women like Denise.
“I had ten women in one class and half of them didn’t have a driver’s license,” Kara said. “When I asked why that was the case, many said they were too anxious or didn’t have a parent or someone to teach them. It was never that they didn’t want their license; it was that they never had the chance.”
Kara began her quest to remove the driver’s license barrier by first reaching out to Make The Ride Happen (MRH), a program of Lutheran Social Services that assists individuals with transportation needs. FVTC and MRH worked through logistics such as safety, liability and insurance for the instructor and the student, and where the students would practice. In the spring of 2021, and in a sea of orange cones spread out in the FVTC parking lot, three MRH volunteer drivers worked with students who’d passed their knowledge test and were ready for behind-the-wheel training.
Students who completed a minimum of five hours of practice then transitioned to over-the-road training with two local driving schools. MS Driving School in New London and Tri-County Driving School in Appleton prepared the students for the ultimate journey: an official road test at the Wisconsin Department of Motor Vehicles.
“I worked with many amazing instructors who pushed me, and I was irritated at times, but they did not fool around with excuses,” Denise joked. “The next thing I knew, I was told to set up a road test. In my mind, I said no, no, no. But I was told yes, we needed to do this.”
On March 28, Denise borrowed her daughter’s vehicle and took her road test. Denise was excited to learn she had passed the test but she did not have the money to pay for the license. Her daughter paid, and in doing so, witnessed her mother get a driver’s license at the age of 46.
Community partners make program a success
Many community partners are involved in making this a start-to-finish program. Goodwill Industries runs a study group for the women to prepare for their written test at the DMV. And a grant, made possible by the Women’s Fund for the Fox Valley Region, Inc. helps pay for temporary license fees, the driving schools for their services and eventually for the driver’s license. The women also learn about community resources for purchasing a vehicle.
In applying for the grant through the Women’s Fund, Becky Boulanger, executive director of the FVTC Foundation recognized the driving program would have a long-term positive impact on those who met the criteria to participate. “We knew that if we created this program, we would create the opportunity for freedom, independence and empowerment that come along with obtaining a driver’s license. With reliable transportation, women can more easily balance work, school and family obligations.”
Since the program started, Make The Ride Happen has had four volunteer drivers work with students to help them achieve their goal of obtaining a license.
“Many hours of work and coordination have gone into this program, from managing the experience for the student and the volunteer to scheduling and communicating with students and volunteers,” said Stephanie Rockman, transportation coordinator for Make The Ride Happen. “I’ve seen firsthand how the lack of driving has impacted some people in their opportunities. It feels good to know I’ve helped to expand opportunities for motivated students who might benefit from this for the rest of their lives.”
“This is not rocket science,” Kara added. “This is using the tools we already have in our community to put the puzzle pieces together to help people. Look at the doors this opens for these women in terms of employment, opportunities for their children and their education.”
Since the program started, five students have obtained their licenses, three have their temps and are working toward their licenses, two are working with MRH to drive in the fall and one is studying for her temps test. Denise is proud to be one of the completers.
“I have seen some phenomenal things happen in my life. My faith has taught me to see every journey through to the end. I have my high school diploma. And now I am a holder of a legitimate license to drive. I still don’t think it’s sunk in yet. I don’t.”