Fourteen miles. That was the length of Michael Smith’s commute to work. He had no car, but he did have a bicycle.
Every morning — except on Sundays — he’d leave his home in Bunnell at 4 a.m. It took him about two hours to get to the Conservatory Golf Course, where he worked around 50 hours each week. By the time he got there, his clothes were wet with sweat and it felt as if he’d already worked a full shift.
“You have to work; you have to make money,” Smith, 20, said. “And when I commit to something, I dedicate myself to it completely.”
Recently, Smith decided to dedicate himself to something else. He’d never finished high school, but he knew a diploma was the key to a better job.
That’s how he became the first youth to complete Flagler County’s new Road to Success Program by passing his General Education Development exam and earning his high school diploma.
The program, which launched in September, serves out-of-school youth ages 16 to 21 at the G.W. Carver Community Center in Bunnell. It’s funded through a state grant and is sponsored by the Carver Foundation, the Flagler County School Board and the Center of Business Excellence: One Stop.
The program helps students overcome the obstacles that kept them from finishing high school. For some, lack of daycare options kept them from finishing school. Others had to work instead. Some got into trouble or simply fell through the cracks.
To help with that, Road to Success works with students and their specific circumstances to craft an educational plan that works. Some students attend full-time and take their GED exams quickly, while others, who have circumstances that prevent them from attending classes daily, work more slowly.
“These youth have all told me that they didn’t like the class sizes of 25 to 30 in schools,” said Brian Willard, the program’s manager. “They didn’t get the attention they needed to deal with their obstacles, so they started falling behind. Once they fall behind, it’s just a ripple effect from there.”
Willard caps his program at 10 students to ensure that they all succeed in their efforts.
But for Smith, success wasn’t ever a worry.
When he enrolled in Road to Success, Smith told Willard that he was ready to take his GED right away.
Willard was hesitant until Smith took the practice test administered to all students entering the program — and aced it. He took and passed the first available GED exam.
“My grades were always good,” Smith said. “But I didn’t use to know how to hold my tongue.”
He was suspended, and later expelled, from Flagler Palm Coast High School when he was 17.
“I’ve changed my attitude now,” Smith said. “There’s no excuse for how I was; I was hard-headed.”
Today, Smith describes his life as a juggling act.
He’s starting online classes at the University of Phoenix in a couple of months and plans to pursue a degree in business management. This is ideal, he said, because with online classes, he can still work. He’s currently looking for a new job.
Once he has that job, he plans to save money for a car. Once he has a car, he wants to save enough to get his own apartment. Currently, he lives with his mother in Bunnell.
But in the meantime, he has no plans to neglect his other projects.
The first of these is Smith’ home business. Using professional-level equipment, he built a recording studio in his bedroom. He produces songs for local musicians at a low fee. But his service is in demand, and those fees add up, he said.
One day, he hopes to use his business management degree to run a professional studio, and dreams of writing songs for others to perform, even though he’s a singer, guitarist, pianist and drummer as well.
As Smith continues to search for a job, he’s also working on a book.
An additional service Road to Success offers is life skills workshops given by Global Villages. A workshop Smith attended recently was about self-employment. Because unemployment is high, the workshop aimed to show students how to get creative in earning an income.
During the workshop, Global Village presented a list of about 100 ways people can go into business for themselves, from landscaping and babysitting to sewing and writing.
Smith plans to do all of them, take photos, and write a book about the experience.
Yesterday, Smith tried junking. He collected garbage and recyclables from his neighborhood and took it to the dump. He earned $129 for the day.
“I’m hoping people will read it and see they have options,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘If he can do it, why can’t I?”
He knows he has lofty goals, but now that he has a diploma, Smith feels ready to pursue them. He’s used to hard work, and he has a plan.
“It’s busy, but you just have to go back and forth taking care of things,” Smith said. “I can’t start something and not finish it. And I knew I couldn’t go to college, have a career, or establish myself without a diploma.”