Unique driving program helps students at Mobile Hope, Douglass obtrain licenses

Driving instructor Matthew Abregu, left, with Ramone Colon, a Mobile Hope student who recently obtained his driver's license. 

Driving a car is a right of passage, which for many teens can be a difficult process to complete. Students need to have access to a car and an adult willing and able to teach them how to drive. For some, the obstacles to getting a license can make it nearly impossible.

David Herlihy, a project coordinator with Mobile Hope's Youth Employment Services (YES) team, said he works directly with students at the Douglass School in Leesburg, and he estimates as many as 90 percent of graduates at Douglass do not have a driver's license. That's because students are required to go back to their “home school” to do the driver's education program, and most Douglass students do not want to do that, he said.

“I have always thought we need to get a driver's education program into Douglass to make it easier for these kids,” Herlihy said.

The Douglass School is Loudoun County Public Schools' "center for alternative education," according to its website.

Students who do not have a license are often unable to seek employment and continue onto the next phase of their life.

Herlihy's mission is to work with teens who are about to graduate from high school with no plans to attend college. Along with his friend and YES team co-founder Jack Robinson, he has developed a mentorship program to teach the life skills needed to follow a career.

He believes, first and foremost, students need to learn how to drive.

“One of the biggest things to keep these kids from becoming homeless is to teach them to drive,” he said.

Last year, the YES team began working with a teacher at Douglass, Pat Thomas, who introduced them to Matthew Abregu. Abregu is a former Douglass student who owns a driver's education business called La Escuelita DIP.

Abregu was able to become certified with the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles to offer his program in coordination with the Douglass School and Mobile Hope.

“We need to get students to graduate with licenses. We are looking forward to the challenge,” Abregu said.

Abregu has helped at least two Mobile Hope students get their license, and he is working with several other students at the Douglass School.

Abregu said his goal is to try to get to know the students and develop a sense of trust. Next, he creates a plan to obtain their driver's permit and what needs to be done next to get a license. He then works with parents to ensure everyone is on board with the process.

“I really go above and beyond for Douglass and Mobile Hope students and do my best to try and find a way to help them. I have to break down barriers preventing them from reaching that goal so they can hit the ground running,” Abregu said.

Herlihy said Abregu has made a “huge difference” at Douglass and Mobile Hope.

“The big thing is I can relate to these students. I grew up with a single mom, and I understand what many of them are going through,” Abregu said.

Mobile Hope Executive Director Donna Fortier said she is grateful for Abregu's work with their kids. She said her organization is able to provide cars for some of the kids to drive, thanks to generous donations from the community.

“Transportation is a huge barrier. Kids who have loving families have access to a car," Fortier said. "Our kids don't have that. Matt goes out of his way to take them to the DMV and spends the time studying and practicing with them. It's exciting to see when they finally get their license."

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