Auto shop to help low-income, homeless families escape cycle of poverty

Groundbreaking is tentatively set for this spring to get construction going on a new auto repair facility that offers affordable or free vehicle repairs to low income and homeless families. The plans have been worked out and are ready to be put into action for this new and one-of-a-kind addition to Pierce County's social services being coordinated by Wendell Wilson, program manager of Network-Tacoma's Community Garage at 1611 S. Chandler St.

Wilson secured a $139,000 Pierce County Community Block Grant to build the new garage at 1635 S. Center St. in Tacoma, which will be a two-story building - an auto repair shop on the bottom and storage space and an office on top. A building permit was submitted to the city earlier this month.

Milgard Foundation gave $10,000 toward the project. Combined with funds from private donors and Network-Tacoma's own coffers, Wilson was able to hire architects and engineers to get plans drawn up. The next step: contractor bids are due Jan. 5. He's planning for the groundbreaking to be next May or June, with the grand opening next fall. "Definitely we'll have the new building operating by January 2009."

This auto repair concept to benefit those in need began within Network-Tacoma's transitional housing program called One Family At A Time. The program facilitates families with children to leave homelessness using a three-step process: screening, crisis intervention and long-term planning for basic necessities like a car. Only families with children under 18 are accepted, and the adults must show a demonstrated effort to be self-motivated for a hand-up rather than a handout, according to Network-Tacoma's mission statement.

To help Network-Tacoma's clients become self-sufficient, Wilson began the Community Garage program in 1997, about four years after he and wife Connie Wilson assumed leadership of Network-Tacoma, a non-profit, non-denominational Washington corporation founded by Bob Weyrick that has been serving the greater Tacoma area since 1993.

Working in the small garage on South Chandler, Wilson and head mechanic Roger LaCelle, who is recently retired from his own auto shop he operated for many years, have repaired many donated cars, the majority of which were given to families working to get their lives in order through One Family At A Time and other agencies that assist homeless families with children.

"In that two years our goal is to help them be self-sufficient - help them get a job, get their kids in school," Wilson said. "Once you get a job, things fall together, but there are other major issues and one of them is that not much works if you don't have a car."

People need their cars, Wilson stated, and they need them dependable. "They'll lose their job if they don't show up for work. Think about how many single women there are who have to take their kids to daycare or go to the grocery store. To do that on the bus is virtually impossible. You're not independent unless you have a car."

So, Wilson and LaCelle provide the car and the first month's insurance to eligible families in Network-Tacoma's transitional housing program. Once the new Community Garage is up and running, repair services at reduced rates based on sliding-scale income will be offered to all low-income car owners in Pierce County, including those referred to Community Garage from other agencies. Clients also get a free car clinic, instruction on basic upkeep and troubleshooting to keep their new wheels dependable.

"The big mission is to help everyone who needs it. Can we? Probably not, but we're going to try," Wilson said. "We're starting off very small with a couple mechanics. Priority will be given to those who are most desperate.

"We became the only garage of this type, maybe in the state, to have their own full-time mechanic on staff," Wilson remarked. LaCelle also handles property management duties for the transitional housing units. There are currently two families living in Network-Tacoma housing.

Other social service agencies in Pierce County began to take notice of the Community Garage, leading Wilson to start looking into how to service their clients as well. Thus the idea was born to find funding and build a larger and better-equipped garage.

Wilson said the new Community Garage will be a big success only with help from auto repair shops and towing companies looking to do something nice for others (and receive a tax deduction as well). He's coordinating a countywide effort to find them. "There's a limited amount we can do at our agency right now," Wilson said, mainly because the current garage is small and it's just LaCelle, his son, and part-time volunteer mechanic Don Riggs doing all the work.

"We need two things - we need donated cars and we need people in the automobile business, like towing companies that would give us a call and say they'll tow a car to our shop once a month."

The same goes with repair shops. Wilson is actively seeking those that will offer free or reduced rates to repair cars. And, of course, mechanics looking to volunteer their skills at the Community Garage are always welcome. "With this new building we'll be able to do more, and to have volunteer mechanics we may be able to even open on weekends."

Wilson said some donated cars would be sold to help with operating costs. Others will be fixed up ready to be sold to low-income workers and job hunters through Tacoma Goodwill's Wheels to Work program. The city of Tacoma donated a fleet of eight cars to the program, all of which are being renewed under the capable hands of LaCelle.

Partnering with other social service agencies is key to Network-Tacoma's mission, Wilson said. He's notified about 60 agencies about the garage project.

"This is going to be a big year for us," said Wilson.

For more information, call (253) 474-9334, ext. 107, or email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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