Sheila Horsey used to leave her South Baltimore home at dawn and board the first of four buses with her young daughter. The pair rode two buses together to the 9-year-old's school, and Horsey took two more buses to her job near Druid Hill Park. The end of the day meant four more buses. Grocery shopping was limited to what she could carry on the bus and, without a family car, the child could not join many activities.
A 1996 Honda Civic, which Horsey acquired through Vehicles for Change, a nonprofit business in Halethorpe that refurbishes clunkers and doles them out to low-income families, has made life "a lot better and easier," she said. She does not fret about sudden changes of weather or bus schedules. If needed, she can drive to her daughter's school in no time. She can load up her car with a week's worth of groceries and, best of all, she said, "It makes me feel good that I can give somebody else a ride."
That Honda was donated to Vehicles for Change, the largest program of its kind in the nation. It meant a tax break for its previous owner and a life change for its current one.
Because of a car from the program, Regina Carter can commute to a better job and still have time for her family. The 2000 Chevy Cavalier means she can keep her 3-year-old grandson's appointments with the pediatrician and pick up her 13-year-old son from football practice.
"He has been wanting to play for a long time," she said. "Without a car, there was no way. This has made a world of difference."
Other donations are also ridding neighborhoods of eyesores.
"Abandoned cars can start the process of community decay," said Baltimore County Police Chief Jim Johnson, whose department investigated nearly 1,700 complaints about untagged or inoperable vehicles last year. "We want residents to use this program."
For the past decade, Marty Schwartz has operated Vehicles for Change (vehiclesforchange.com) and typically transfers ownership of about 40 cars a month, each with a 6-month, 6,000-mile warranty. Cars beyond repair can be sold for parts, with the proceeds returned to the program.
The new owners, about 80 percent of whom are single mothers, finance about $700 and grant money pays the remaining cost.
"These people want a better job and can't do it without a car," Schwartz said. "Research has shown us that usually, within a year, 73 percent have found that job and with an average $5,000 salary increase. Our goal is to get another two years and 24,000 miles out of the vehicle."
The typical donation is 10-years-old with about 115,000 miles. Makes and models run the gamut of U.S. and foreign manufacturers.
"Transportation can be a huge barrier to employment," said Donna Reihl, dean of community education at the Community College of Baltimore County, which is referring qualified applicants to Schwartz. "A car means getting your children to child care and getting to work on time without worrying about the weather or the bus schedule."
A donated car that goes to a needy family becomes a tax deduction, based on the fair market value, for its previous owner, Schwartz said. Throughout this Vehicles for Change Month, Baltimore County is offering another incentive - $75 in gift certificates from area businesses.
Executive James T. Smith Jr. praised the program for "improving the quality of life in all our neighborhoods," safeguarding the environment and helping many find and retain gainful employment.
Schwartz employs 12 people full-time and four others part-time. His three-bay repair shop is usually fully occupied with refurbishing or warranty work. He also runs a used car lot on Washington Boulevard. Several owners of those donated cars - there have been 3,000 since the program began in 1999 - have returned to that used car lot and traded in their vehicle for an upgrade, he said.
"Typically, their car is worth more than they paid," he said.
Horsey plans to hang onto her Honda for a good while. The car that she has been driving since last year has less than 100,000 miles and gets great mileage with low maintenance.
"This is a blessing, and I am taking good care of it," she said.