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Repaired and free cars help change lives

Gary Moen of Vadnais Height (left), Mark Colman of Hudson, Wis., and Tom Share of Cottage Grove work on a tie rod at Car Care Saturday in March. (Bulletin photo by Toni Lambert)

Low-income, single moms in need of a vehicle or car repairs with nowhere to turn might try a group of Christian men who like to work on cars.

"It's easy to give advice, but our goal is to do something," said Cottage Grove resident Tom Share.

Share and volunteers from all over the southeast metro meet one Saturday a month to repair cars for families and individuals living within 200 percent of the poverty level.

Volunteers, all members of the St. Croix Valley Christians in Action program based in Lake Elmo, start each Car Care Saturday with a prayer.

"You can talk about faith and loving your neighbor, but if you don't do something, you're not helping much," Share said. "We actually change lives."

Share has been a Saturday volunteer since the program's creation in 1993. A second Cottage Grove man, John Schmit, has worked on Car Care Saturdays for the past 10 years. "We help people who want to help themselves," he said.

Families that are living within 200 percent of the poverty level are eligible for one-time free repairs on their vehicle. Along with the repairs, owners must participate in a brief class on how to budget and manage their finances, which is taught by Kathy Smith while the car is being repaired.

The group also provides free cars to families who are working or going to school and living within 200 percent of the poverty level, if they meet certain requirements.

The first requirement is to be referred to the program by an organized church.

The second requirement is to complete a nine-week Christian-based financial management course.

"Once the nine-week course is completed, participants have to show us they've learned to budget and save and can maintain a vehicle," Kathy Smith said. "We don't approve everyone for a free car."

'Saved our lives'

Smith and her husband, Matt, were recipients of a free car when they were first married, had maxed out their credit cards, couldn't find jobs and had to move in with their parents. "It saved our lives," she said on Car Care Saturday.

The Smiths received a free car through the program 10 years ago. "We took the class, received the car, got back on our feet and -- when we could -- returned the car," Kathy Smith said. Now she teaches the Saturday course and Matt Smith, a mechanic, volunteers on Car Care Saturday. "Since I've been through the same experience, I know what people need to learn," she said.

Matt Smith said, "Just by putting a couple hundred dollars and a few hours of work into repairs, plus the budget course, we can help people get out of the debt cycle."

Others who have benefited from the program often come to Car Care Saturdays with lunch for the mechanics or to clean the inside and polish the outside of repaired cars. "We call the polishers 'dust angels,'" Share said.

Each month, volunteers usually have between five and 11 cars to repair, according to Share.

On March 13, a sedan came in that needed four tires, a muffler and a ball joint -- repairs that would have cost the owner from $600 to $800, Share said. "How many low-income families can afford repair costs like that? Most can just barely afford to buy a vehicle."

When a vehicle is donated, Share said it's evaluated. "If it can be repaired and refurbished, we do the work and give it to a low-income family -- usually a single mom with four kids."

Every dollar given to the program results in about $4 worth of repairs, he said.