BURLINGTON -- Got wheels? If you do, you have access to more jobs than Vermonters who don't have cars. You pay less for food, because you can shop for the best deals. And you can drive to classes, community meetings and a wide variety of recreational activities.
It's difficult to get by without a car in such a rural state. That's why the Good News Garage, an affiliate of Lutheran Social Services of New England, redistributes donated vehicles to impoverished recipients, the vast majority of them single mothers.
For 10 years, GNG has said they make a big difference in the lives of the people they help. Now they have a better idea of how big that difference really is. Joanne Carmen Infantes, a Housing and Urban Development fellow in the University of Vermont's Community Development and Applied Economics Department, recently completed a study that validates GNG's mission.
GNG Director Bruce Erwin says he was "pleasantly surprised" by the reported outcomes. "We thought we were doing OK," he says, "but the study showed the impact on people's lives was really pretty measurable."
The study examined 76 of GNG's 170 vehicle recipients from 2004. It found that nearly half the recipients -- 49 percent -- were able to discontinue public assistance thanks to their cars. Another 12 percent were able to cut back on the benefits.
Sixty percent said they found a job thanks to the car. Eighty-three percent said it helped them keep a job. That finding echoes a handwritten thank-you note Erwin has collected. Its author, a woman named Melissa, addresses the person who donated her new car. "I want you to know how much it means to me to get your car," she writes. "I was on the verge of losing my job, so now I can work."
Erwin notes that the study findings weren't all rosy. "We need to do a better job of providing preventive maintenance information," he says.
Most of the cars GNG distributes have more than 100,000 miles on their odometers. GNG offers a 30-day, 1250-mile warranty, but if the car breaks down after that, drivers are on their own.
When GNG releases a car, a mechanic walks the recipient through maintenance basics, such as where to add the coolant and the oil. But it appears as though that's not enough, Erwin says. He suggests that recipients of a new car might be too excited to pay close attention. GNG is in the process of setting up classes for recipients before they get the car.
Fixing this glitch is important, because losing the car can be devastating to someone who has come to depend on it. And as the study shows, hope is one of the most valuable gifts people who donate these cars can provide. Fully 90 percent of study participants said that receiving a car made them more hopeful about their family's future.
That was GNG Outreach coordinator Carmen George's favorite finding. "The hope thing is so important," says George, who is also a Burlington City Councilor. "If I'm feeling hopeful, I feel like I can accomplish something."
And that can have a major impact on children who grow up in poverty, she adds. "If your mother is feeling hopeful, what happens to your family?"
To donate a car or van to Good News Garage call 877-448-3288 or donate a car online at their website http://www.goodnewsgarage.org