MINNEAPOLIS — As a social worker, Cathy Heying did what she could to help people in tough situations.
Often, a vehicle was involved. “I kept hearing similar stories,” she said. Cars would break down, and their owners couldn’t afford the repair. Bus service wasn’t available. Without transportation, her clients lost jobs, couldn’t pay their rent — and sometimes ended up on the street.
Low-cost car repair “could prevent a lot of tragedy,” which led her to the realization: “We need someone to do this.” No one was doing it, though, so Heying decided that the someone would have to be her.
In 2008, she took out a student loan and enrolled at Dunwoody College of Technology, determined to learn auto mechanics. “I thought about maybe fixing cars on my driveway on Saturday afternoons,” she said. But she was out of her league — a 38-year-old woman amid an army of young guys — and in way over her head.
“I didn’t know much about cars,” she acknowledged. “The first quarter I cried regularly.” Instructor Dave DuVal took notice. “I could tell she was anxious,” he recalled. Heying shared her vision, and DuVal resolved to help her make it happen. When Heying got discouraged, DuVal cheered her. “I’d say: ‘Cathy, you can do this. Hang in there.’ ”
Two years later, Heying graduated from Dunwoody and took a part-time mechanic job, honing her skills while continuing to work in human services. By then, her vision had grown. Intent on opening a nonprofit garage, she began recruiting a board of directors. The plans were in their infancy when she got an offer to sublet a repair bay in south Minneapolis.
“We didn’t have insurance or a phone or credit history,” Heying recalled. “But my philosophy is: If a door opens, walk through it. It took us about eight weeks to get somebody to insure us.”
The Lift Garage () opened its doors in March 2013.
Heavy demand fueled the Lift Garage’s rapid growth. Today, the nonprofit has an annual budget of $300,000, six full-time employees (one a volunteer) and three repair bays.
Customers, who must meet low-income guidelines, pay $15 an hour for labor, compared with $100 to $130 per hour at a commercial garage, and parts are sold at cost. Since it opened, the Lift Garage has completed 1,246 repairs for 642 customers, saving them an estimated $454,000.
The shop loses money on every repair but makes up the difference through donations and grants. In addition to money, “Our big challenge is demand,” Heying said. The waiting list for repairs can be as long as three months.
Repairs often take longer than anticipated because “these are old, old cars that haven’t had maintenance,” she said. “Many of our folks with grinding brakes, by the time it gets to us, it’s not just pads, it’s pads, calipers, everything. A two-hour job becomes a four-hour job. Or we find 10 other safety issues, and it turns into a 10-hour job.”
One of the hardest parts of running a garage is having to tell people that their car isn’t worth repairing.
“Folks are coming to us in poverty and crisis,” Heying said. “A fair number have mental illness. Sometimes they get angry. We don’t take it lightly to condemn somebody’s car. I don’t want to waste money I know they don’t have. My conscience won’t let me.”
On the plus side, though, providing a tangible service proves rewarding.
“You get to see how you’re making a difference every day,” she said. “Cars are towed in, and they drive out. A small percentage of folks are living in their vehicles, so we’re fixing their homes as well as their cars.”
(It is stunning to me that such people can still exist in these modern, stressful and confusing times, wherein our world stage keeps changing. But as much as we read and hear about lack of respect and care for others, cruelty and mayhem of every description; beneath it all, we share a common need for one another, and innately I believe — a caring. Its just who we are as a species. Far too many of us have suffered indignities and cruelty which in time can jade the best of us. . . crust over the heart. . . leave us broken. Who of us at one time or another, doesn’t need a little help?
In thinking of ‘good Samaritans’ – – I can’t remember hearing of one who has done what we see here, on such a large scale, or at such a great cost in time and effort. . .this lady dreams on a very large scale and she made it work. (not denying the lofty forces which may have been smoothing her path) I am so in awe of Cathy Heying! Jan)