Making the choice of a lifetime

Just one bad decision can completely change the course of a life.

That’s what Phil Christian, executive director of the Mattie C. Stewart Foundation, wants young people to understand, and that’s why the foundation owns and operates two Choice Buses, which are half normal school buses and half prison buses.

“The Choice Bus is designed to show young people the importance of making good choices, especially those about staying in school and getting a good education,” Christian said. “We show them the likely consequences of making the choice of dropping out of school, which we know, statistically, is a life of crime. Statistically, 75 percent of all people who are incarcerated are high school dropouts.”

In the front half of the Choice Bus, which is the normal school bus, the seats are turned around so the children can see backwards. There is a black curtain drawn across the bus, shielding the prison half from view. After the students watch a video featuring the testimonials of actual prisoners, the curtain is drawn back to reveal a replica of a jail cell.

“It’s all designed to show young people that prison is not like what they see on TV, where it’s glamorized,” Christian said. “It’s the real deal. It’s not a place anybody wants to be.”

The foundation launched Choice One, the first Choice Bus, in October 2008. The Shelby County Commission and the Shelby County Board of Education presented the foundation with Choice Two at the commission meeting Aug. 10.

Choice Two will spend the first half of the fall visiting Shelby County middle schools.

Christian said response to the Choice Buses has been phenomenal.

“We’ve had 55,000 go through the Choice Bus in five different states, including Alabama, North Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida,” he said. “In fact, it’s been so successful that Choice One is booked through the entire school year already.”

On Wednesday, the foundation will announce the addition of 10 Choice Buses to the fleet in 2010-2011.

“It all started right here in Alabama,” Christian said. “We can reach a far greater number of young people with this message. It’s a very powerful learning experience, and that’s what we want it to be.”

The Mattie C. Stewart Foundation is headquartered in Homewood.