Auto donation program gets workers to work

REGION – Susan Wesley was a reliable worker with unreliable transportation. Her old GMC van “was on its last leg. It started when it wanted and didn’t when it didn’t,” she said.

Wesley, a single mom with two school-aged kids, found herself “really struggling.” Her former employer didn’t have enough work to keep her busy full time, and the job search was tricky because of her unreliable vehicle. When she finally found a new position that offered more hours, “there were a few days I didn’t show up because I couldn’t get here,” she recalled.

Through the Goodwill Inn, a homeless shelter where Susan had received services in the past, she learned about the new Workers on Wheels program. Known as WOW, it gives donated vehicles to qualified applicants in northern Michigan who have no transportation or unreliable transportation. Since its inception in this area in January, WOW has put 28 families back on the road.

Goodwill Industries of Northern Michigan Inc. runs the program along with a committee of representatives from area human service agencies, such as Father Fred, Women’s Resource Center, the Family Independence Agency, Goodwill Inn, Michigan Rehabilitative Services, Michigan Works and Wedgewood Christian Services.

“Each organization is trying to help people get off assistance. The last step is to be able to get a job and housing, but maintenance has always been a problem,” said Ed Blackburn, WOW manager and auto donation coordinator for Goodwill Industries. “It always comes back to transportation. As the agencies pulled together, we found this was the common thread; this was the roadblock.”

The program has been up and running in the five-county area–Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, and Leelanau–thanks to funding from the United Way, coordinating council groups in each country, area agencies, and donations. Two months ago it was launched in Wexford and Missaukee counties, and in another two to three months, the Gaylord area will launch a similar program, all under the auspices of Goodwill Industries, according to Blackburn.

Anyone can apply to receive a donated vehicle, and the disbursement committee, comprised of representatives from participating agencies, sets the criteria and priorities for choosing from among the applicants.

According to Blackburn, “The number one thing we looked at is people losing jobs or not able to keep their jobs because of transportation. For a single parent with children, they have day care, doctor’s appointments, etc. BATA does a wonderful job, but people often need more independence than a public transit system can provide.”

Recipients pay a $20 service fee to the program, plus tax, tag, and title fees of $60 to $80 in most cases. Susan Wesley also paid an additional $86 to her insurance company to have her previous vehicle’s coverage transferred to the new one.

WOW requires that recipients show proof of insurance before they receive a vehicle. Goodwill Industries also conducts a Motor Vehicle Record check and attaches itself as lien holder on the car for six months. Before signing off after that time, Blackburn will check to be sure owners have kept up with oil change and maintenance schedules.

Donated cars have ranged from sports cars to passenger vans and trailers, from antique to 1995 models, with anywhere from 20,000 to 200,000 miles, and ranging in value from $1,000 to $4,000. Vehicles above or below that value are sold at auction and the money is put back into the program.

“We don’t want anyone to be upset because we’re putting someone in a Cadillac Seville, but it’s nice to get the nicer cars because we do have other avenues to sell them to be able to help the program,” said Blackburn.

The average repair bill, paid for by Goodwill Industries, is running between $600 and $1,000, according to Blackburn, who’s currently using three area mechanics to inspect and fix the donated vehicles before giving them to their new owners.

The biggest surprise for Blackburn has been the unanticipated consequences of the program.

“What’s really been ironic is that our main focus has been to help with jobs, but we’ve gotten lots of letters about how it’s changed their life. It’s really given independence,” he said. “Not only were these people borrowing rides, but they were living with relatives and friends. There’s always been a decision between a car or housing. The car gets priority because it gets them to and from work. Now they can say, ‘I’m going to find an apartment or house and start to live the life I’m supposed to have.'”

Since getting a Ford Taurus station wagon about three weeks ago, Wesley works more hours and will be assuming additional job responsibilities in the coming months. She says the car works out well for taking her kids to and from school events. And, she said, “it’s been running like a top for me.” Wesley’s employer is pleased, too. With reliable help, she’s able to get more accomplished each day. “It’s a wonderful program. So how do you go about donating?” she quickly asked. BIZNEWS