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Nonprofit puts people back on the road of hope

Wheels4Hope repairs donated cars and places them with people who need basic transportation. Once a small outreach ministry, the nonprofit is now a $1 million-a-year organization with major corporate sponsors.

Photo by Alex Maness
Gloria Scott waves the keys to her new Mercury Sable after receiving the car from Wheels4Hope.

April 9, 2013

Gloria Scott, 51, of Chapel Hill, N.C., cranked the engine of the 2003 black Mercury Sable and, for the first time in years, saw a world of possibilities on the road ahead.

After a decade without a car, Scott -- who’s putting her life back together after a history of health problems and addictions -- no longer has to rise at 4 a.m. to catch a shuttle to her job at an assisted living facility across town. No longer does every trip beyond walking distance -- to the grocery or her doctor or even just dinner out with her husband -- mean a bus ride, with waits at each end of the journey.

And next month, Scott will finally see the campus where her son has attended school the past four years, when she drives herself up to Virginia Union University in Richmond to watch him graduate.

“It means the world to me,” Scott said. “It has changed my life.”

The cost? Just under $600, including taxes and fees. But don’t be misled by the price. The Sable is no clunker; it’s a beautiful, smooth-running machine.

It comes to her courtesy of Wheels4Hope, a faith-based nonprofit that takes donated cars, fixes them up and sells them at nominal cost to low-income wage earners who need basic transportation.

Initially a small outreach ministry created by a handful of members at West Raleigh Presbyterian Church, Wheels4Hope is today a largely self-funded $1 million-a-year operation with major corporate sponsors. In any given week, it coordinates the efforts of more than 30 volunteer mechanics and car enthusiasts, plus dozens of referral agencies, churches, partner garages, staffers and others, to collect, repair and deliver cars to people who need them.

So far, they’ve placed -- or “blessed” -- more than 500 people with donated cars. Add in the children and families buoyed by their newfound freedom, and that’s nearly 1,300 lives that have been improved by Wheels4Hope.

It all started back in 1999 when the church, long known for its active missions, encouraged members to look more closely at the world around them and launch their own ministries. Answering that call, Chris Simes and John Weistart looked for outreach ministry ideas and saw that for many low-income people in the Research Triangle -- a sprawling region with limited public transit -- life without a car is a constant struggle.

 

Questions to consider:

  • What are the essential supports that make your daily life possible? Who in your community doesn’t have them?
  • Does your organization address or ignore problems? What process does it have for bringing problems to the surface?
  • Where do you see grace in your organization? Stewardship? Integrity?
  • What are the untapped connections, the networks, that members of your organization could turn to for possible partnerships?

Having no car can mean hours arranging rides or traveling by bus to and from job interviews, appointments, grocery stores and day care. For those who have or are looking for a job, options are often limited to low-paying positions near a bus line. And the inflexible nature of a bus schedule means little opportunity for overtime or advancement.

Buying a car presents more challenges. Simes and Weistart found that low-end car lots often prey on the poor by jacking up prices and charging exorbitant interest rates. Buyers then struggle to keep up with payments, insurance and repair costs.

“You can get help with health care, food, job training placement and education,” Simes said, “but what you can’t get is help with transportation.”

In late 1999, Simes and Weistart put out a call to fellow church members to help fill that void. About a dozen people attended the first meeting, eventually winnowing down to a core group of about eight.

In May 2000, they filed the paperwork for Wheels4Hope to become a nonprofit.

A different kind of nonprofit

Thirteen years later, in an era when many nonprofits are struggling to survive, Wheels4Hope is thriving and growing. It opened a second garage in Greensboro last year, and the Raleigh hub now also serves nearby Durham and Chapel Hill.

This year, Wheels4Hope’s operating budget is projected to top $1 million, with about 80 percent of that funded with revenue from car sales, both to the program participants and to the public.

“It really is an exciting concept that a nonprofit organization can be largely self-funding,” said John Bush, executive director of Wheels4Hope.

It was designed that way from the start, Simes said. An engineer and car enthusiast, Simes used his knack for detail to draw up a 13-page road map for the nonprofit. Most of the procedures are still in effect today.

Times were lean at first. Mission members spent the early years recruiting volunteers and networking to build support at area churches, civic groups and car shows.

“I don’t think any of us had been much involved in running a nonprofit before,” said Simes, who took classes at Duke University to earn a certificate in nonprofit management. “It was the blind leading the blind.”

In addition to being incorporated as a nonprofit, Wheels4Hope had to be licensed as a used car dealer. Weistart, a law professor at Duke, and other church members handled the paperwork.

For the first few months, donated cars piled up at Simes’ home -- in his garage, in front of the house and in his backyard.

By summer’s end, they used seed money from West Raleigh Presbyterian and others to lease a small brick garage from a paint and body shop in southeast Raleigh. They staffed it with mission members and volunteers from West Raleigh Presbyterian and other churches, and they kept costs low by recycling some car parts and buying others.

Unlike many nonprofits that sell donated cars at auction, reaping only a portion of the proceeds, Wheels4Hope handles its own sales.

Cars that are not suitable for a program match because of high maintenance costs or other issues are sold to the public, typically for $1,000 to $5,000, with the profits going to Wheels4Hope.

Donors also receive maximum benefit for their gifts. For cars placed as program vehicles, donors can deduct the full market value from their taxes. This could mean a deduction worth hundreds or thousands more than if the car had been donated to another charity and sold at auction.

And program participants aren’t just given the cars, which are valued between $2,000 and $4,000. Recipients, who are typically going through significant setbacks or life transitions, are referred by partner agencies that work with them for six months to two years to ensure that they need and can maintain a vehicle.

Recipients pay $588 toward the car, taxes and transfer fees. They receive the title after maintaining the car for a full year.

“We’re making an investment in those individuals while at the same time expecting them to make an investment in themselves,” said Carol House, Wheels4Hope’s procedures and compliance specialist.

Growing pains

Some of the biggest challenges in launching and growing Wheels4Hope involved more than car repairs and legal paperwork. With the nonprofit’s success came issues of governance and organization.

For several years, the nonprofit operated by a nonhierarchical model, with no executive director and decisions made by a consensus of the mission group members.

In the beginning, it worked. The group members had no problem attracting volunteer mechanics and car enthusiasts to repair the cars. But creating a sustainable program with long-term volunteers proved more elusive.

“We needed steady volunteers and not one-timers,” Simes said. “A lot of people don’t think in those terms, so it was difficult.”

By 2009, the charity couldn’t ignore the growing pains.

“There was just so much going on,” Simes said. “In a hierarchical group, you delegate. With the mission model, most things go through the mission group. At some point, that becomes a bottleneck. We were beginning to see some of the reasons why most nonprofits have a traditional model of an executive director and staff.”

The group decided they needed a fresh approach.

They found it in Bush, a former pastor they already knew as head of StepUp Ministry, a nonprofit that provides jobs and life skills training. It was one of the group’s earliest partner agencies. Bush was experienced in fundraising for churches and nonprofits, and the mission group was confident that he could expand the organization’s reach.

Bush wasted no time. He used his connections with StepUp Ministry and others to revamp the board with a mix of business and civic leaders. He sought sponsorships and pursued paid advertisements, which turned out to be a game changer.

In 2010, Wheels4Hope moved to its current, larger facility near downtown Raleigh.

Inside the garage, cupboards are dotted with logos from their first and largest corporate sponsor, Carquest, the Raleigh-based auto parts company, which came on board in 2010.

In addition to giving money, Carquest financed two national half-hour spots on the Speed channel, donated the labor of their partner mechanics and financed the opening of a second garage in Greensboro.

The TV spots led to national exposure, and phone calls started pouring in from across the country with people wanting to donate their cars. (Unfortunately, Wheels4Hope isn’t yet equipped to handle out-of-state donations.)

Other sponsors, such as Kerr Drug and the Independent Garage Owners of North Carolina, followed.

In the four years since Bush took the helm, Wheels4Hope has tripled the number of cars it places. Last year that added up to 115.

Handing over the keys

As at any car lot, everything comes together at the closing. But at Wheels4Hope, they don’t just hand over the keys. They hold small ceremonies either at the garage or at participating churches, blessing both car and new owner.

Last month, Scott and two others took delivery of their cars at a blessing at a church in Chapel Hill. About 30 Wheels4Hope staffers, volunteers, community organizers, clergy and others gathered around three shiny, bow-wrapped cars and their new owners. The investments that Wheels4Hope and the owners had made -- in the cars, themselves and each other -- were obvious.

Paula Fisher, 61, who was referred to Wheels4Hope by the Community Empowerment Fund, blinked back tears as she recalled how far she has come.

“Last year at this time, I was homeless,” said Fisher, who now works as a certified nursing assistant. “I actually, literally had nothing.”

Having a car, she said, means independence -- no more relying on friends and bus service to get to and from her job.

Angela Baker, 54, who has battled addiction and homelessness for years, was referred by the Durham Economic Resource Center. Clean and sober for two years, she is looking forward to cutting her commute from more than an hour each way to less than five minutes. No longer will she have to be at the bus stop at 6 a.m. to make it to her job as a hotel housekeeper.

“Having a car is definitely a blessing,” said Baker, who plans to go to school to get certified as a drug and alcohol abuse counselor. “To God be the glory, because I sure couldn’t do it myself.”

After the ceremony, the new owners drove away with a joy that was palpable.

It happens every time, Simes said: “They feel like they’ve just sprouted wings.”

Weeks later, Scott still couldn’t get over her good fortune. She catches herself staring through her kitchen blinds to admire the Sable, and spends her work breaks sitting in the car.

“My co-workers think I’m crazy,” she said.

Grace, stewardship and integrity

What makes Wheels4Hope work, Bush said, are core values of grace, stewardship and integrity.

“People who walk in the door at Wheels4Hope talk about the feeling that they get of being welcomed, respected and being cared for,” Bush said. “It’s a joyful place. And I think it’s because we are in touch with the reality of grace. We take seriously our obligation to be good stewards, and we treat people with integrity. It’s what gets us up each day, because we need those same things that we’re trying to offer others.”

Visit the Raleigh garage, and it’s easy to see those values on display.

On a recent afternoon, 24 donated sedans and minivans lined the nonprofit’s parking lot. Nearly a dozen volunteers worked to repair three more cars in the garage bays. A volunteer salesperson worked with a young woman on the public sale of a blue Buick Regal, and the front office buzzed with staffers trying to arrange the next round of “blessings.”

Most of the original West Raleigh Presbyterian organizers have moved on to other missions. But the church continues to be a faithful supporter through volunteers and financial donations, and one member sits on the nonprofit’s board.

In May, Wheels4Hope will host its first charity golf tournament, underwritten by a $5,000 grant from Wells Fargo. The nonprofit aims to place 18 cars for 18 holes, their largest single-day blessing yet. And one lucky golfer will win a shiny red Nissan Xterra, courtesy of a local donor.

Mike DeSorbo, Carquest’s vice president and the executive chairman of Wheels4Hope’s board, sees it as only the beginning. He hopes to expand nationwide.

“There’s no reason why Wheels4Hope can’t be the Habitat for Humanity for automobiles,” he said.