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Seven Days: Vermont Car Blog

February 12, 2009

Four-Wheel Freedom

Burlington’s Good News Garage has generated plenty of press. The nonprofit that provides recycled cars to low-income families has been featured everywhere from NPR to “The Today Show.” Has the current economic crisis slowed the pace of donations? I met with Director Michael Muzzy at the office-garage on North Winooski Avenue to find out how things are going.

Autofinder-021109 BOB KILPATRICK: How long has Good News Garage been around?

MICHAEL MUZZY: Since 1996. Hal Colston had the original idea and worked with Jon Van Zandt in donated space down at the bus garage. I think the year after that they moved to King Street. We were there until about ’02, when we moved here to North Winooski Ave.

BK: How long have you been with the organization?
MM: Since 1998. Prior to working here I had been an ASE-certified mechanic for 18 years working at dealerships. I basically burned out on the for-profit automotive world. It’s competitive and sales driven. The older I got, the less it fit my needs.

BK: The for-profit world wasn’t working for you. What about the nonprofit world does?
MM: It has less to do with automobiles than with my heart. This is in alignment with how I want to spend my time and energy. Being helpful versus generating income. What I get to do here is utilize my automotive background in a way that directly, tangibly, helps the people that we work with.

BK: What does it mean for a Vermont family not to have a car?
MM: Without a car, especially in rural Vermont, your employment options are limited to where you can walk. Medical appointments, day care, taking the kids to see their grandparents — these logistical problems are multiplied immensely without access to your own transportation. We say, “Donate a car, change a life.” Once that car is part of the equation, employment options are expanded.
It’s a Catch-22: “I don’t have enough money to buy a car or fix the one rusting in my yard, but I can’t get to a job to get the money.” Hal [Colston] used to say, “Nobody wakes up and chooses to be poor.” It’s really true. A lot of young single moms are clients. Particularly when you’re working with them day-to-day, you get to really know the person. These women are some of the hardest-working people that I’ve ever met. They just plain do what it takes for their family — to get their family to a place where the kids have their basic needs met, can have fun, and can see their relatives.

BK: What is the biggest challenge currently for Good News Garage?
MM: We are getting more referrals. There have always been more people needing transportation than we have vehicles available for. We have people calling us on a daily basis with pretty dire circumstances. Certainly the challenges are driven by the economic situation. People are hanging on to their cars longer. The volume of repairs that are needed when [donated cars] come in the door is higher. So our repair costs are climbing.
What’s amazing is that the volume of donations has remained steady or even grown. We are looking for cash donations to offset the rising repair costs, and certainly need to keep the donated cars coming in. The cars that don’t make the cut for program cars we sell at auction. Cars that aren’t appropriate for a low-income family, like big SUVs or luxury cars, we sell outright. All that money comes back to fund the program. We are a 501c3, obviously, and self-sufficient. We’re owned by Lutheran Social Services, but in terms of the bottom line, we live and die based on our own resources and operation.

BK: Your clients often have issues they need to work out to get themselves back on their feet. Do you offer financial counseling or similar services to help them with that process?
MM: Our Ready To Go program provides rides to low-income Vermonters and is specifically centered around helping people transition from state assistance to independence. We provide rides for individuals that are going to an employment-training program, have an employment offer, or need to get to an existing job. That’s what the ride service is all about: providing that bridge so they can get going, start addressing their issues, and eventually move off the ride service into their own transportation. We coordinate with public transportation so we aren’t duplicating what’s already available in the community.
You asked about financial counseling — we do work with Opportunities Credit Union. As a nonprofit credit union, that’s their mission: working with Vermonters to improve their standard of living. It’s all about developing credit, developing an asset base, and developing financial literacy skills. The agencies we work with — usually the Agency of Human Services Reach Up program — their case managers are working with the families to provide that piece. And Hal Colston’s NeighborKeepers program — we work with them, and they’re all about life-skills literacy. How do you get along in the employment world, coming from the low-income culture and moving into the employment culture? It’s all about skills development. And the piece that we provide is the hardware, the transportation hardware.

BK: Last spring you started getting the word out that you would accept just about any vehicle, regardless of condition. Are you going to continue operating with those parameters?
MM: I can’t tell you how many times I talked to someone, and they said, “I would have given you my car, but it was 11 years old.” There’s a pervasive belief that a car has to be 10 years old or newer. That is not true. We depend on a wide variety of donations to operate the program. Any donation has possibility here.

If you’d like to learn more about Good News Garage — or, even better, make a donation — call 1-877-Give-Auto or visit www.goodnewsgarage.org.

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