A year ago, a school bus redesigned into a mobile classroom for children sat rusting in a Worcester parking lot. The colorful murals of math equations and planets painted on the outside of the bus were peeling off from the sun and rain. The engine needed a tune-up.

Judy Perry planned to use the bus for her Worcester nonprofit, the Jubilee Career Center for Performing Arts, which provides free arts and technology programming to underprivileged youth. But since accepting the bus as a gift in 2015, Perry struggled to cover the cost of insuring and operating it.

Philanthropic organizations continued to deny her grant money — like other Worcester nonprofit leaders of color. That systemic barrier, which has played out across the country, forced Perry to rely on her own pocketbook just to keep Jubilee afloat. But she still didn’t have enough money to fix up the bus, let alone operate it.

In a dramatic turnaround, that’s all changed, and she’s experienced a surge in donations and grants in the past eight months. The bus — with its computers, desks and cabinets — is finally living up to Perry’s hopes: on any given day, it’s in an underserved Worcester community hosting instructors who teach children about everything from fashion design to being respectful on social media.

“Hallelujah hallelujah,” Perry said one recent afternoon as elementary-school aged kids from Worcester’s Great Brook Valley public housing community learned how to use sewing machines and electronic sketch pads aboard the bus. “It’s just amazing because we’ve waited for so long.”

Perry noted that many lower-income Worcester families can’t afford to buy computers and pay for wifi, a problem highlighted during the pandemic when schools transitioned to remote learning. Children may be talented, Perry said, but they need resources and opportunities to reach their potential and blossom. The bus is meant to help provide that.

“The goal and the purpose was to always go to the different communities, let the kids come on the bus, enjoy the arts and technology, have fun and learn,” she said. “Just to open somebody's eyes and let them know that there's something beyond what they see in their environment.”

Perry’s experience growing up in Providence has shaped her goals for the mobile technology bus. Before starting her nonprofit, Perry loved to dance and at one point had a free scholarship to practice ballet in high school. But once the scholarship ended, Perry couldn’t afford the training to continue pursuing dance as a career.

“I had to give up,” she said. “That just got me thinking about young people of color who … will never be exposed to the arts. They'll never be exposed to technology.”

A lady shows a boy how to use a sewing machine.
Judy Perry brought her bus to Worcester's Great Brook Valley neighborhood one recent afternoon.
Sam Turken GBH News

Despite that ambition, Perry said her plans for the bus were in serious jeopardy late last year. People began questioning her about why she wasn’t taking advantage of the bus.

“One person, and it broke my heart, they went as far as to put on Facebook, how the bus was sitting, peeling and not doing anything. And they wanted me to sell them the bus. It's like they criticized me,” Perry said. “I'm like, ‘OK, but how are you helping us out? You know, are you able to give us funding?’”

Perry said her luck started to change shortly after GBH News highlighted the bus in a story late last year about nonprofit funding disparities in Worcester.

In January, Perry received an anonymous $25,000 donation that helped cover the cost of repairing the bus’ engine and generator that powers its air-conditioning units. Perry also used the money to purchase electronic sketch pads for the mobile classroom and renew its insurance policy. More funding came in June when Perry received a $5,000 grant from the Worcester Arts Council, a municipal body that funds arts initiatives around Worcester.

“Someone finally took a chance and said, ‘You know what? Hey, this sounds like something good,”’ Perry said.

The donation and grant were enough for Perry to take the bus to different communities this summer, where it would host workshops on fashion design and social media. She started partnering with local high school students and arts organizations, like Wavvznewage, to teach the program.

Then she opened up her mail one afternoon in July and learned the city of Worcester awarded her another grant using federal COVID-19 relief funding meant to help communities disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. This one was for $227,000.

“I think I read the letter five times. And then I had someone else read it. I'm like, 'Can you tell me what that says?'" Perry recalled. “I was just so happy and elated and excited.”

A teenage boy teaches a younger girl how to use an electronic sketch pad.
Judy Perry has hired high school students to help teach the children.
Sam Turken GBH News

With the help of Dan Ford, who runs another nonprofit that teaches youth how to fix cars, Perry said she now plans to use the grant money to host an after-school program on the bus for years to come. She envisions local university and high school instructors teaching children about a variety of topics, including film editing, robotics and 3D printing. She’s already witnessing the success of the summer workshops on the bus.

During the bus’ recent stop in Great Brook Valley, more than two dozen children from the Worcester Boys and Girls Club took turns making pillows with the sewing machines and drawing on the electronic sketch pads.

“The kids seem to be really enjoying themselves,” said Josh Brown, director of outreach for the Boys and Girls Club. “The things that they are experiencing — it goes a long way. It opens doors. Plants seeds.”

One of the children, Marcus Williams, spent his hour on the bus drawing a self-portrait on a sketchpad. Williams said he loves art, but doesn’t have a computer at home. If he did, he said he’d look up pictures online and then practice drawing them.

Once he finished creating his portrait, the instructors on the bus surprised him with a printed copy of the picture.

“You’re telling me this is what came out?” Williams yelled. “I wanted this!”