Columbia-based group a driving force for jobs Cars for Careers finds automobiles for those just off welfare rolls

July 07, 1998|By Jill Hudson Neal | Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF

Cheryl Chesser, a single mother of two young girls who was recently erased from the welfare rolls, pokes her head through the sunroof of her new Volvo.

"I'm still in shock that I have this car," the 32-year-old woman says. "It's sort of like it's not really mine."

Chesser received the 1986 Volvo -- which has logged more than 123,000 miles -- in late June from Cars For Careers. The Columbia-based nonprofit group donates used cars to Howard residents who need transportation to get to work.

Since its inception this year, the organization has given four cars to local women who were once on welfare and are working toward staying off the dole for good. Organizers hope to give away up to 50 donated cars a year.

For Chesser and many welfare recipients, lack of transportation has been one of the biggest obstacles in getting and holding jobs.

"This is a wonderful service," says Mary Funke, transitional services administrator for Catholic Charities' Community Services Division.

"I'd love to see it in Baltimore, for example, where we're working with this kind of problem every day," she said.

There are similar programs in other jurisdictions.

Anne Arundel and Allegany counties sponsor "Wheels to Work" programs, which make old county cars available to welfare recipients who want to work. Baltimore City and Somerset County offer van service to out-of-the-way jobs.

Martin Schwartz, Cars For Careers' executive director, says public transportation can prove inadequate for parents trying to get to work on time and shuttling children to and from day care.

But buying a car is often out of the question, says Debbie Douglass, assistant director of family investment for the Howard County Department of Social Services.

"Howard County can be a very expensive county to live in," Douglass says. "Between rent, child care and all the other expenses that single mothers coming off welfare have, buying a new or used car just isn't possible."

Funke says Cars For Careers or a similar program would be welcomed throughout the region.

"Put yourself in the role of a welfare mother who has two or three children," she says.

"You have to take them to day care and reverse the cycle at the end of the day. Then you have to get yourself to work. If your employer asks you to work overtime, and the buses stop running by the time you're finished, what are you going to do about getting your children and getting home?"

Frustrating in suburbs

It can be especially frustrating in the suburbs, Funke says, where everything is spread out.

"Day care could be many miles from school, and your workplace could be miles away from that," she says. "Howard County is a very big place."

Late last year, Cars For Careers' board received a $50,000 state grant to get started. The organization accepts any donated vehicle, even those that aren't road-ready.

Car owners who are looking to get rid of an old car can get a tax break and help out a disadvantaged neighbor at the same time.

Glenn Greisman, an industry analyst for the Federal Communications Commission who lives in Columbia, donated his 1988 Dodge Aries to Cars For Careers after reading about the organization in the community newspaper.

"I didn't think we'd get much [money] for that car -- I'm not sure they even make them anymore -- and we weren't going to get much use out of it," Greisman says.

"This way, it goes to a good cause, and it can help someone get to work," he said.

Donated cars that don't pass the "roadability" test are sold to wholesalers for cash. About $2,000 has been collected from such sales, according to Don Eames, owner of the Airport Shuttle and president of Cars For Careers' board of directors.

Donated cars are taken directly to garages or car repair shops, where they are readied for the road.

After repairs, "there's no reason a person couldn't get three to five years of use out of the cars as long as you get normal maintenance on them," says Russ Johnson, who runs the repair shop at Galaxy Pontiac Buick GMC/Columbia, where many of the donated cars are repaired at cost.

Vocational students attending Lincoln Technical Institute in Columbia will soon begin repairing cars earmarked for Cars For Careers, a prospect the school's executive director, Paul McGuirk, says has everyone excited.

Sponsorship needed

"The students like the idea that these cars will help people get a job or get the help in their lives that they need," he says. "They'll be doing their part to help these people get their lives together," McGuirk said.

Candidates applying for a car through Cars For Careers must be sponsored by a Howard-based nonprofit organization. The agency must attest that candidates need a car and will be able to make a monthly low-cost payment on a loan they are required to take out to pay for repairs and to help establish a line of credit.

Eames says working with the women who have received cars has been a learning experience.

"No one really understands the depth of difficulty of people on welfare or who have been on welfare," Eames says.

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