2 decades of giving a lift to those in need
Up until recently, getting around had been a challenge for Farland and her husband, Gerry. Their home on South Stream Road is a three-mile walk from the nearest bus stop, which meant relying on friends and relatives to run errands and get Gerry Farland to his job at the Bennington Health and Rehabilitation Center. Buying a car just wasn't in the budget.
That's when the Good News Garage stepped in.
The Good News Garage, based in Burlington, is a non-profit organization that provides reliable and affordable transportation to people in need. The blue 2006 Outback station wagon that the Farlands received is one of 4,600 vehicles the agency has awarded in 20-plus years of operation. Though most of those vehicles bear the green-and-white license plates of Vermont, the non-profit, a member of Ascentria Care Alliance, also operates programs in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
"There's a lot of talk about workforce development throughout New England," said Bob Buckley, the director of operations for the Good News Garage, "but nobody's talking about transportation. When they talk about workforce development, I have not seen that."
The need has been documented. "Poverty in Vermont," a 2010 report prepared for the Vermont Child Poverty Council, found that 40 percent of people living in rural areas have no access to public transportation. "Without further transportation options," the report notes, "people in poverty and will not be able to access the services they need to help themselves."
A 2010 study of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF, recipients in Maine found that 46 percent of respondents had no vehicle, and that of those, 80 percent had trouble getting transportation when they needed it.
The Good News Garage awards cars to people receiving public assistance in Vermont and New Hampshire through its Wheels to Work program. To be eligible, Vermonters must be enrolled in the state Department of Children and Families' Reach Up program — Vermont's version of TANF. Reach Up case managers accept applications from clients, and forward them to the Good News Garage for processing.
Most Good News Garage clients in New Hampshire are referred by the Division of Family Assistance or the New Hampshire Employment Program.
In Massachusetts, Wheels to Work operates in partnership with the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission. The Massachusetts program is for people with disabilities who need transportation to work, and cannot afford to buy their own vehicle. To qualify, an applicant must be referred by their MRC counselor, and have a written Individual Plan for Employment.
Vehicle donations are the heart of Wheels to Work. "Private donations from car owners are the meat and potatoes of our operation," Buckley said. Donated cars are picked up and delivered to the garage in Burlington, where they're examined by one of the agency's three three full-time technicians.
"We look at every car, and evaluate it for its best use," Buckley said. Some cars are found to be beyond repair, usually because of rust; those cars may be sold at auction for parts. Premium brands, such as Mercedes-Benz and BMW, are culled because they're considered too costly to maintain and repair for people of modest income. Those, too, are sold.
"When we look at a car to repair, we're looking for longevity," Buckley said, "something that will last them two or three years, to get them back on their feet." Wheels to Work "is not a permanent fix, but it's a bridge to get them there," he said.
On average, Good News Garage puts about $2,000 into every vehicle to make it safe and reliable.
Every car donated, Buckley emphasized, "will help some family in one way or another." Donated cars made up nearly half of the organization's $4.7 million budget in fiscal 2016, with public funding making up the bulk of the rest.
The Farlands' Subaru is an example of a sound car that, despite having 175,000 miles on its odometer, needed only a bit of TLC to make it reliable. The Good News Garage installed a set of four new snow tires, replaced the exhaust system, changed all of the fluids and filters and conducted a complete safety inspection before declaring it ready for its new owners. It came with a 12-month warranty.
"The cars are made in Detroit — they're not made in heaven," Buckley quipped. "The car itself represents the Good News Garage, and if the car fails, the client fails, and we've failed." The Good News Garage contracts with local shops — in Bennington, Loomis Auto Exchange and Earl's Service Station — for warranty work, so that the owners don't have to travel to Burlington.
Before the Farlands could take delivery, they were required to sit down with a "car coach," who went over some basic information that all car owners need to know. "He talked about the maintenance of a car, how much it might cost a year, and the general upkeep, to make sure I knew what owning a car entails," Katlyn Farland said. The family also had to open a savings account for car expenses.
Reach Up paid the registration and title fees, and the Farlands paid the taxes.
Wheels to Work is not the only tool in the Good News Garage's toolbox. Vermonters who are at risk of losing a job due to lack of transportation can ask their case manager about the Ready To Go program, which provides van rides to and from employment and to and from childcare. Last year, Ready to Go's 28 donated minivans provided 24,000 scheduled rides in Vermont, Buckley said.
"They'll pick Mom or Dad up, take the kids to school," he said. "They'll take the parents for an appointment with a case worker, or to a job. It makes them more productive." The Good News Garage provides the service in partnership with the Vermont Department for Children and Families.
Finally, for working people who make under 250 percent of the federal poverty level, but don't qualify for the state-funded programs, there's the JumpStart Vehicle Program, offered in Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire. JumpStart provides cars at heavily subsidized prices; a sedan worth $6,000 might be available for as little as $2,000.
Those who are interested in applying for a vehicle through JumpStart must submit a fully-completed vehicle application and meet the following criteria to be considered: have a valid driver's license, work at least 20 hours a week (or have a verifiable job offer), make less than 250 percent of the federal poverty level, and have a "sponsor" who can evaluate the applicant's need for a vehicle.
The affiliated JumpStart Repair Program, offered only in Vermont, provides grants of up to $500 to working individuals. "You're living on the edge, and your car breaks down, and it's all over," Buckley said. "This will help them get their car fixed. It's good for the family, and it's good for the state."
Unlike the other programs, those interested in JumpStart can apply directly to the Good News Garage, and need not be referred by a state agency.
What's the net result of these programs? According to the Good News Garage's own survey, 95 percent of clients reported that they still owned their car one year later, 72 percent reported that their income had gone up, and 70 percent reported that they were no longer on public assistance. "We are proud of the impact we make in transforming lives," the agency's website states.
A state-funded survey found similar results. Sixty-one percent reported that the car had made them less reliant on assistance, with 49 percent reporting they were no longer receiving any help. Ninety percent reported that they'd been able to use their time more efficiently since receiving their car, 60 percent said they had gotten more job training, and 48 percent said they'd been able to further their education. Several studies have found that car owners have higher employment rates, and endure shorter spells of unemployment.
For the Farlands, the Subaru is a perfect fit. Not only is it reliable, but it has lots of safety equipment and a 4 1/2-star crashworthiness rating, attributes that are particularly important when one of the passengers is 8 months old.
"It really is a godsend," said Gerry Farland. "There are a lot of people who are in our situation, especially single parents, who can only afford to drive a piece of junk. I know, because I've been there."
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