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Fall Ministries

Keeping the parish engine running

NCR Staff

St. Francis of Assisi Parish of Ann Arbor, Mich., had done everything right. They had launched a program to give used autos to working poor people, including moms and dads moving off welfare. Even more vital, as anyone who has owned a clunker knows, the parish garage provided a year of free maintenance.

When the program, sponsored by the parish St. Vincent de Paul Society, outgrew Woody’s Stay Tuned garage, it contracted for a larger service center in nearby Ypsilanti. On New Year’s Eve 1998, three days before they were due to move into the new quarters, someone broke into Woody’s and stole $15,000 worth of tools. Not even a screwdriver was left behind. Nothing was insured since the insurance had been transferred to the new premises.

The local Ann Arbor News had headlines such as, “Tools’ loss devastating to group that fixes donated cars for needy,” and “Garage: Program barely hanging in there.” Mechanic Doug Brokaw was quoted saying it had taken him 20 years to accumulate his tools, and his diagnostic tools alone were worth $4,000.

Was the new, improved program dead before it got started?

“No,” answered Margaret Schaut, Neighbor Works Community Garage executive director. “A local anonymous Jewish family trust offered a $10,000 challenge grant. We raised $21,000 in response to that. We’re still short equipment -- it’s really expensive -- but we’re operating. Even hobbled, we’ve done 161 families between January and the end of June.”

The whole car-and-garage scheme isn’t new. There are variations on this same theme in other places nationwide. A few years ago, parishioners Bill Flick and Woody Terns started Franciscan Motors. Flick is the parish peace and justice minister; Terns operates Woody’s Stay Tuned garage. For years, Terns had been giving single mothers a break when working on their cars, telling them, “Pay when you can.”

Flick and Terns called Franciscan Motors a “self-help program.” Over the years they helped a couple dozen families with cars and keeping those cars on the road, as Terns operated his commercial garage. “It was a pretty low-key program,” said Flick.

Beginning last year, Schaut teamed up to help create an expanded program, a more complete approach. Neighbor Works Garage provides a car and guarantees the new used-car owner a year’s free maintenance, plus a low-cost repair plan. “No one else in the country is doing this,” Schaut told NCR. Education is essential to the Neighbor Works approach. They train the new owners -- working single mothers, elderly, disabled and homeless people -- in the essentials of auto maintenance so that after 12 months they can check oil, check tires, spot fraying fan belts and understand the best deals on insurance coverage.

The six-bay, four-mechanic garage has taken on four welfare-to-work recipients. To remain economically viable, the garage takes in ordinary retail work. Some needy people who already own cars can qualify for subsidized repairs; there’s a list of at least 50 families waiting for the next car to be offered.

Schaut, a St. Francis parishioner, is no stranger to helping poor families. Two years ago she designed a federally funded program to help low-income women start business ventures.

Schaut, Flick and Terns are modest about what Neighbor Works is up to. “We’re just a small group of parishioners,” said Schaut, “attempting to apply Catholic social justice teaching and economic development principles to a bunch of used cars that people are willing to donate.”

They are a group willing and able to start again when disaster -- or a skilled thief -- strikes.

Contact: Neighbor Works Community Garage administration: (734) 485-4722.

National Catholic Reporter, September 3, 1999