BALTIMORE – The recession that has weakened nonprofits around the country has actually been a help to Vehicles for Change.
Headquartered in Halethorpe, Vehicles for Change takes unwanted vehicles, repairs them and sells them cheap to low-income families around Maryland, the District and Virginia.
“We actually have more cars in our inventory than we’ve ever had because we’re getting so many donated,” says Marty Schwartz, president and chief executive officer of Vehicles for Change. The high-fenced, barbed-wired lot where they store cars is packed.
Since the recession began, Schwartz says, many of their donations have come from families who are looking to cut costs by turning in a third car.
“In this economy, people are going, ‘You know that car is costing us at least $300 a year in insurance, probably putting another $300, $400 in repairs,’ and so they’re getting rid of it,” he says. “From that standpoint, I think the economy is being very good to us.”
But Vehicles for Change has also gotten a lot more requests for cars.
“Prior to the recession, last year, I might get one to two e-mails a month,” Schwartz says. “Now I get two e-mails a day from people who, you know, need a car. They don’t know what to do. They don’t know where to turn.”
Schwartz and Vehicles for Change answer those calls and do the best they can. But with their prices so low, they can’t afford enough staff to award more than 50 cars a month.
Alvin Williams, a maintenance worker at Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake, received a car from Vehicles for Change last month. He describes the car — a 1997 Plymouth Voyager — and its influence on his family’s life as a “blessing.”
“I needed the wheels badly,” says Williams, who used to have a two-hour commute with buses, rail and a three-mile walk from his home to his job. “I get to work in, maybe, 20 minutes now.”
But the car has helped him with more than just his daily commute. Williams has a 19-year-old daughter with both multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy, who has several doctor appointments every month — and public transport is tough in a wheelchair.
“The vehicle helps us out to get her down there and get her out of there in a timely fashion instead of catching the subway and then the bus,” he says. It also helps them with “taking her out, getting her some air, you know, going to the movies, which she likes to do.”
With his commute so much shorter, Williams says he can now get a second job to help support his single-income household.
The recession has “really crunched us,” he says. “This job takes care of some of the bills, but I have other bills too, you know, that I need taking care of.”
Although Vehicles for Change is sitting on a lot filled with more cars than ever, the nonprofit still needs money.
“Finding that external grant money is becoming more difficult,” says Schwartz. “Foundations have less and less money to award.”
The shortage of grants helps explain why the charity employs only a skeleton staff, which can turn around only so many cars, and only so quickly.
But if that’s upsetting Schwartz, you wouldn’t notice.
“I hate to say it, but I think it’s a wonderful economy,” Schwartz says. “We have plenty of people who need our services, and we have plenty of people who are giving us cars to take care of them.”