Cathy Heying never intended to work at an auto repair garage. But she runs one tucked behind Dan’s Nicollet Car Wash in Minneapolis.
And it’s not just any auto shop.
Granted, The Lift Garage may sound pretty typical: As cars are waved in and go up on lifts, staff members in maroon polo shirts file paperwork and assist customers in a room that serves both as a front office and waiting area. A few toys sit on a shelf to help keep children who are accompanying their parents occupied.
But The Lift has an unusual mission. It’s a nonprofit that aims to ease car troubles for low-income people.
Almost any driver, regardless of income level, can recall a car repair that squeezed his or her wallet. But for low-
income individuals, such a repair can be devastating. In many cases, instead of paying for the repair, they stop driving the vehicle.
That decision, in turn, could have repercussions for their employment and their ability to do other things, such as go grocery shopping.
It’s those kinds of challenges that Ms. Heying, founder of The Lift, is ready to take on. Her operation provides low-cost repairs, free pre-purchase inspections, and “honest advice” for its customers.
Her staff shares her outlook. “We really strive to be there for people and to be hospitable, and I think that’s something that [Heying] cultivates and activates in all of us,” says Brooklyn Vetter, who has served as office manager at The Lift.
Heying was inspired to open her own garage in 2013 after volunteering at St. Stephen’s Shelter for the homeless in Minneapolis. She found that many of the men she worked with struggled to find a dependable means of transportation. If a shelter guest could afford a car, it was often faulty and unsafe, and auto repair costs could have impeded the person’s ability to pay rent, she says.
“Transportation is a huge barrier here for people getting and keeping work and housing, and all of that just kept getting clearer and clearer to me as I watched people struggle to try to move out of homelessness and poverty,” Heying says.
But she was surprised to find few organizations addressing affordable car repair in Minnesota’s urban areas.
“Minnesota – they say it’s the land of 10,000 nonprofits because it is a very giving and charitable state, but we didn’t have anything in this arena,” she says.
So she decided to do something about it.
Within a few months, she was enrolled in the auto technology program at Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis. She was the only woman in the class and a nontraditional student with a background in social work to boot. But what really made Heying stand out, says assistant professor Dave Duval, was her commitment to learning the material and her desire to help others. When she shared her vision for a nonprofit affordable car service, “it hit me to the core,” he says.
Now, Heying uses her degree to help her customers understand cars more and make better financial decisions regarding their vehicles. The Lift charges $15 per hour for labor and sells parts at cost, significantly reducing the amount that clients pay for repairs.
Poverty is prevalent in Hennepin County, where The Lift operates. The poverty rate there is about 13 percent, compared with the state average of 11.5 percent, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
An appointment to the rescue
When Connie Hanson’s Dodge Caravan broke down on the side of the road, she thought she’d have to ditch the car because of the high cost of repairs.
Then a friend suggested Ms. Hanson call The Lift. Hanson, who didn’t know there was an auto garage behind Dan’s Nicollet Car Wash, immediately contacted the garage and scheduled an appointment.
“They got me in on an emergency visit, and it was really cool,” says Hanson, who lives about 30 miles from the garage in Anoka, Minn. “Without them, I wouldn’t have a car right now because I called around to different mechanics, and they’re talking in the thousands [of dollars for a repair].” Instead, Hanson paid The Lift $450, about a third of the price she would’ve paid elsewhere.
Hanson credits her ability to maintain a car to The Lift, which she visits every four months for a car checkup.
Ms. Vetter, the office manager, says Heying has infused the garage with a sense of hospitality, grace, and patience, which keeps customers coming back. Those who work at The Lift, Vetter says, take the time to explain to customers the situation with their car – what needs repair right away, what repairs can be delayed, or why it might be a good idea to forget about a repair and save for another car instead.
“We do car repair, but we’re also like social workers and therapists,” she says.
The Lift started small, operating out of one bay each Saturday. Word got around. A few months after Heying opened for business, appointments filled the calendar three months out – and it’s been that way ever since.
Today, The Lift operates four bays and is open five days a week. Heying says she could raise the eligibility standards for The Lift’s services, but she’d rather keep her doors as wide open as possible.
“There are other measures we could use that could make that list get shorter,” Heying says. “But one of the things I’ve seen in lots of years of working with people in poverty is that [nonprofits and society] make it really, really hard for people to be successful.”
One way The Lift reduces red tape is by asking customers for only one form of verification that indicates their income is below 150 percent of federal poverty guidelines, a standard measurement of low income many nonprofits use, Heying notes. Customers can provide pay stubs, food stamp cards, Social Security award letters, or papers filed with a social worker or federal agency.
“One of my visions and hopes is always that we be as barrier-free as possible in how we treat and respond to our customers,” Heying says. “Dignity is a very high value for us here.”
For Hanson, The Lift isn’t just a place to get her car fixed. It’s a space where she feels welcome and appreciated.
“[Heying] didn’t talk down to me,” she says. “She treated me like one of the family.” Hanson is impressed that even as The Lift stays busy, employees and volunteers always seem to have time to go the extra mile for customers – such as buying Girl Scout cookies from Hanson’s youngest daughter.
The immediate difference that a car repair can make for a customer motivates Heying. She fondly recalls an experience involving a customer who wanted to visit her older mother for many years but couldn’t because it wasn’t safe to drive her car that far. And she couldn’t afford to fix it. Getting her car repaired at The Lift allowed her to visit her mother that very weekend.
“It’s tangible work, and I love that about it,” Heying says. “[It’s] different than many other kinds of social work or social services.... [Here] a car gets towed in, and we fix it and it drives away. That is a really great feeling.”
But Heying aims to provide customers not just with mechanical fixes, but with the sense of independence and freedom that comes with a functioning vehicle. “It’s about helping people survive, but then it’s also helping people thrive,” she says.
For more, visit theliftgarage.org.
How to take action
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