Ricardo Beecham is a graduate of the Earn+Learn program.
A virtuous circle around cars
Crain’s Detroit Business
February 26, 2017
I just watched a 2001 cherry red Oldsmobile change the lives of two people.
First was Ricardo Beecham, a 40-year-old felon training to be a mechanic out of a shop run by Vehicles for Change, a nonprofit based in northeast Detroit’s struggling Osborn neighborhood. Beecham wiped his long, oil-slicked fingers across his pants before shaking my hand. “It’s hard finding a good job out of jail,” he said.
As part of his training, Beecham helped repair a 2001 Oldsmobile Alero with 113,000 miles.
Second was Myesha Harris, a single mother of two children who desperately needed transportation to work, school and church. She had no car nor credit until Vehicles for Change sold her the same 2001 Oldsmobile Alero for $965, including a six-month, 6,000-mile warranty and a AAA Michigan membership.
“Oh my God!” she said when Beecham’s instructor, Issac Small III, handed her the keys Tuesday morning.
Small smiled. His trainee is a step closer to being a licensed mechanic, and Harris now has a car — the same cherry red Oldsmobile nursed onto the road by Beecham’s steady hand. “It’s a virtuous circle,” Small said.
The circle began in Baltimore, where Martin Schwartz launched Vehicles for Change to solicit car donations and sell the vehicles at low rates to needy and worthy families. Since 1999, the nonprofit has provided cars to more than 5,000 families who can prove they have a job or a job offer and need a car to stay employed.
The average recipient experiences a $7,000 annual boost in pay within the first year of ownership, according to a study conducted by the program. Nearly 90 percent of recipients used their cars to take children to after-school activities and tutoring.
“For a lot of people, having a car — even a beat-up old car — is transformational,” Schwartz told me over breakfast recently in Eastern Market. “What a car can mean for people is the difference between poverty and success.”
A cousin of Jim Schwartz, the former Detroit Lions head coach, Martin Schwartz expanded to Detroit in 2015 after being encouraged by his friend Luis Perez, who left the team’s head office that same year.
Since coming to Detroit, Vehicles for Change has put 42 low-income residents in cars. By the end of the year, said Director of Operations Teresa McFadden, the total will be 65.
The program works like this:
- People and institutions donate cars to Vehicles for Change.
- The cars are fixed and serviced. Until recently, that work was done by corporate sponsor Belle Tire.
- Potential buyers are referred to the program by the Wayne County Metropolitan Community Action Agency, which seeks people with the greatest need and ability to benefit from reliable transportation.
- One Detroit Credit Union loans recipients the price of each car at 8.9 percent interest. Vehicles for Change guarantees the loans.
- Each car costs $850. The AAA membership and warranty raise the price to $965. With interest, that’s $85 per month for a year.
Ninety percent of the recipients are single mothers like Harris, living in neighborhoods with poor public transportation and few jobs. Harris works in a distant suburb.
“This vehicle is going to change my life because I’ll be able to make sure I can get my 8-year-old to school every day. I’ll make sure my attendance is great at work. And I’ll always have the opportunity to go to church events now,” she said.
This year, Schwartz fully replicated his Baltimore model by opening a training center that is giving nine people, including Beecham, a chance to earn six state certifications in mechanics while fixing and servicing the donated vehicles.
During training, they earn $8.50 an hour 40 hours per week, with $1 per hour set aside to purchase a set of tools. Mechanics can’t get work without tools.
Once certified in the six categories, a new mechanic has an average starting salary of $35,000 or so. A bit more training, and they can earn close to six figures.
“I can make ends meet without this program,” Beecham told me. “But with these certifications, I can make the money a family needs to thrive.”
Beecham, who served 14 years in prison for armed robbery and attempted murder, is one of five ex-inmates in the current nine-person training class — all vetted for the program by the Detroit Economic Employment Solutions Corp.
There is only one woman in the class, 26-year-old Chynna Penson of Detroit, who said she left her job as a home health care aide to learn a new trade. Until she enrolled in the program this year, Penson said, “I knew nothing about cars. I could put gas in them and I could tell when the brakes were going bad — but that’s it. Now I’m certified to fix brakes.”
Penson lives in one of the poorest neighborhoods in a city starving for opportunity. One-fourth of low-income households in Detroit are without cars, according to data provided by the program. Only 60 percent of working-age Detroit residents live near a transit stop, and just 22 percent of all Detroit jobs are reachable via public transit in fewer than 90 minutes.
“A lot of us are stuck here in this neighborhood unless we’re lucky enough to get a car and a job,” Penson said, flashing a deep-dimpled smile beneath her Superman ski cap. “I’m a lucky woman.”