Jackie walked four miles to work, rain or shine, freezing or sweltering. After rent, food, utilities, and childcare for her daughter, there simply wasn’t money left for a car payment. Like most people in middle America, Jackie lived in an area without timely, reliable mass transportation. She had turned her life around, and was well on track towards a career in health care. But education and employment opportunities would always be few and far between without a car.
Most of us take reliable transportation for granted. With the turn of a key we can get to work, to the store, or to the doctor with little fuss or worry. Yet for so many people in America like Jackie, reliable transportation is simply out of reach. With few public transportation options available, the lack of a reliable vehicle can severely limit access to jobs, stores, medical care, and social and religious services, and can trap people in a poverty cycle.
I hope to show you in this article that while we can’t fix every cause of poverty, automotive enthusiasts like us can make a serious dent by helping people like Jackie. Many of us already have skills, resources, and connections to get impoverished families mobile. If you can repair a car, find and purchase a reliable used car, motivate dealerships or parts suppliers, or fundraise, you already have the ability to make a life-long positive impact in a person’s life. And since so many of those in need are single parents, your impact could affect multiple generations.
Here’s my story. As a life-long car guy and former automotive engineer, I have a very particular set of skills… and a wealth of tools! When co-worker’s cars broke down, I volunteered to help. Word spread, and eventually I was asked to help repair the car of an impoverished woman in our community named Marlo, a single mother of four. Without money or connections, she turned to the pariah of the automotive world: a predatory lender. He hoodwinked her into buying a “reliable” Mitsubishi Lancer by neglecting to disclose a recent front-end collision. By the time I was brought in, the car was awful. Actually, “awful” is not the correct word. The correct word is a string of expletives not fit for a reverend’s blog.
Repair work began with a timing belt, water pump, pulleys, and accessory belt. Then four new tires. Then an alternator. AC had left the building who-knows how long before, along with struts and brakes. The car was a hot mess… literally. But what could she do? She was still in debt to the liar who sold it to her. She could not reliably get to work and could, therefore, not hold on to a job, meaning she couldn’t purchase a better car. It was a vicious catch-22.
My wife and I grieved for Marlo and her kids. We simply could not sit back and do nothing. So, we started OnRamp, a 501c3 charity that partners with local charities, social workers, health-care providers, religious institutions, and school districts to identify worthy clients like Marlo. We meet with these clients to discuss their budget and life goals. We develop a list of steps they must take before receiving a vehicle, typically including reducing discretionary monthly expenses, paying down egregious debt, and, of course, securing liability insurance for a new vehicle. If they succeed in these steps, we raise money, find a vehicle, and gift it to the client. In Marlo’s case, we found a Chevy Tahoe that would fit her family of five, plus their two dogs, and got it for a great deal. Occasionally, an individual, business, or dealership will donate a vehicle to us to donate to a client. We then support a client’s vehicle for the next year free of charge, which allows us to meet regularly with the client and encourage her towards her life goals.
Now I recognize, few of us have the time and resources to set up and run a non-profit! That’s okay. To the few of you who would like to do what my wife and I have done, we’d love to share all our experiences, lessons, documents, and resources with you free-of-charge.
To the rest of my readers, the good news is that you can make a major impact in the lives of families in need even if all you can do is turn a wrench or donate a part. Single moms make up a disproportionate number of people in need of transportation help in most communities. While some moms definitely have the skills and abilities to repair a car, many do not, or lack the tools to do so. In many cases the required repairs are actually quite simple for someone like us. By far the most common two needs I see: replace brake rotors and pads or replace an alternator, starter, or battery. Many of you could do that in your sleep! Do it for a single mom in need and you’re a hero to her and her kids.
What if the problem escalates? You replace an alternator, get the car started, and then find the water pump has failed. If you can continue down the rabbit hole of repair, that’s great. But if not, that’s ok, too. You’ve still done a huge service to this family in need: you’ve fixed the problem they were aware of and identified the next problem to address. You’ve saved them time and money regardless of what happens next. And remember, for every case like Marlo’s, there will be at least two or three where your simple fix will suffice to get a family back on the road. Not every old car’s a lemon!
In my next article on this topic, I’ll share with you the most important lessons in automotive charity I’ve learned along the way, including how to get the biggest bang for your buck and how to protect your butt.
Let me end by telling you what happened to Jackie. A mentor named Jean Marie sponsored her for OnRamp. We were so impressed with her hard work and determination that we accepted her without reservation. She completed the required financial steps within a matter of days, so I needed a car ASAP! Winter was coming and walking just wouldn’t do. That’s when the owner of our local Honda dealership heard about our charity and offered us a mint-condition 2010 Civic on a huge discount. We got it for a steal and then gifted it to Jackie at the dealership with her daughter, sponsor, and friends on hand. The local news heard about it and invited us to tell the story on camera a few days later, which was a great reward for the dealer! And now Jackie has a reliable car to get to and from work and to take her daughter to school. And that’s what really matters. A hard-working single mom knows she’s not alone. She’s well on her way towards her personal life goals. And all it took was a car. We can’t fix everything wrong with the world, but we can fix this!
As always, comments, likes, and follows are much appreciated. I hope to keep the articles coming for you! Recommendations of topics or resources are welcome, too.