How this Frayser resident is making driver’s ed affordable and accessible for her community

As we got to know Teresa Landrum-Caswell in the beginnings of our conversation, an aside was made that she probably has a book in her, given all that she’s accomplished.

Her answer didn’t disappoint.

“I did write a book. It's called “Thrive Where You Are” and I wrote it in 2012,” Landrum-Caswell says. “It talks about the obstacles I overcame as a single mother on welfare and how, even though I was on welfare, I was still determined to be successful. I was going to school at night and I got my bachelor's degree and turned around and got my Masters of Business Administration, as well.”

A native of Decatur, Illinois, Landrum-Caswell moved to Memphis about 15 years ago, she says, where she and her husband Charlie Caswell, himself a pastor and newly elected Shelby County Commissioner who is also developing the Legacy Impact Community Resource Center, raised their six children. The family calls the Raleigh-Frayser community home and it’s here where they do much of their work.

This July will mark the one year anniversary of the opening of the brick-and-mortar location for the Caswell Group Driving School, a community-minded business that Landrum-Caswell got the idea for when it was time to teach her teenage daughter how to drive. She discovered two things: how there were no driving schools in the Raleigh-Frayser community and how expensive other Memphis driving schools would cost to attend.

Teresa Landrum-Caswell would take it upon herself to teach her daughter how to drive before embarking on the years-long process of becoming certified as an instructor and opening the Caswell Group Driving School to help others in the Raleigh-Frayser community learn, too.

She saw a problem and fixed it, to put it plainly. We asked her all about it.

High Ground: How did you get started on this journey, to opening a driving school in Raleigh-Frayser?

Teresa Landrum-Caswell, founder of the Caswell Group Driving School.Teresa Landrum-Caswell: I never grew up thinking I was going to be the owner of a driving school. But what I can say about me and my family, my husband and I, we are very passionate about the community. And what I noticed with my daughter — she was in high school at Martin Luther King Prep, here in Frayser — and when she said, Okay, Mom, I'm ready to get my driver's license, I said, Okay, and I began to research driving schools in the area. And then I said, Oh, my God, we don't even have a driving school nearby, anywhere. The closest one was approximately 15 minutes away and at that time, we couldn't afford it.

So of course, my husband and I, we took our daughter to the park and then we taught her how to drive and we were successful. But it never stops there with us. We asked, What are the other residents doing? They may not have people in their life that's going to do this. They might not even have cars, you know. We began to think about what it would take to start a driving school in our community, something our community needs. We’re working to make our community look like other areas of Memphis, like Germantown, Cordova, and Bartlett. If it's within our reach, we're going to do whatever we can to make that happen.

So I began to research what it would take to start a driving school. I was still working a full-time job and teaching part-time at the University of Memphis, as well. And I realized I had to go to Knoxville and get certified. So I went to Knoxville, stayed there for a week, got certified, came back, and then started teaching driver improvement courses on the weekends. And then I began to research what it took to actually get a driver's ed. program up and going. That took me about four years. Because, I had to get dedicated office space, I had to get a vehicle with the proper adjustments, such as a gas and brake pedal on the instructor’s side. So it took me a little while. I didn't have the finances back then so I just did a little bit at a time.

I found a mentor in Knoxville, a man who's been in the industry for 30 years. He has two locations — very successful. I called him and he said, Sure, I'll help you. Come on down. So my husband and I went there and stayed with him and his wife for a week. I got to see him do a class and I got to see how he did his behind-the-wheel training. He let me sit in on those. And to this day, he still answers me anytime I have a question about anything. He's my mentor and he is wonderful.

(That mentor is Greg Mangan, who owns the Drive 4 Life Academy in Knoxville, Tennessee — ed.)

High Ground: Were there any small business grants in the community or programs that you were able to access that helped you out, that we could share to help out other people in the future?

A student behind the wheel of a full cab driving simulator.Teresa: Absolutely. I want to give a shout out to Epicenter. They are wonderful. I reached out to them and said that we really need a full cab driving simulator. The simulator cost approximately $15,000 and Epicenter provided us a grant of $10,000 towards this purchase. And then they also connected me with Pathway Lending. Pathway Lending gave me my first line of credit. And that opened doors for me to get my second simulator and to get our second car.

High Ground: Earlier you mentioned the roadblocks that prevented your own daughter from going to a driving school. How do you do things differently with your own school?

Teresa: Well, I don't pay myself a lot. I could pay myself more, but if I did that, then I would have to charge people more. I also teach part-time at Southwest (Tennessee Community College) as an adjunct instructor. And I look for ways to reduce our costs, so I don’t have to charge as much.

High Ground: It’s obviously very important to you.

Teresa: The whole reason for starting the driving school was because I wanted something affordable and accessible. I want something that the Frayser community can come to that’s right around the corner, where they don't have to catch an Uber or Lyft to get driver's education. I want something in this community and I want it to be affordable. That was my whole goal. I want our residents to have the opportunity to get driver's education, especially in an area where driving can be terrible. But like I tell people, we can't complain about it if we don't do anything about it.

Next month will be my one year anniversary and 95 students have completed the program. Our class is full every month. There's a waitlist for every class. In fact, we’re getting to the point where we’ve outgrown our current space and I have to lease space from my church to offer bigger classroom space. And so I am looking for something bigger to accommodate our growing business.

I even provide transportation to the DMV because when I first started, I would always call students and say, Hey, you gotta take the test, take the test when the information is fresh in your mind. And some weren’t doing it because they didn’t have a way to even get there. So once a month I rent a bus and drive everyone up there. And then there are payment plans that I offer. A lot of people can’t come up with $500 right away so they can pay a $50 deposit now and then have up to one week before class to make up the remainder. So they can register today for September classes and make payments as they can. I have to incorporate things like that because my community looks different from others.

*Update: This interview has been re-edited for length and clarity.

Caswell Group Driving School is located at 1025 Whitney Ave. in Memphis.
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