Friday, 12 January 2007 16:45

Shops find unique ways to give back to their communities

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Hank Tarter jokes that if you're going to have a heart attack, the place to be is Keizer, Oregon, a community of 35,000 residents just north of Oregon's capitol city of Salem.

"That's because one of the civic group's recent fund-raisers that we helped with here put defibrillators in every Keizer police car," says Tarter, owner of Tarter's Keizer Collision Center, who took an active role in making the fund-raising effort successful.

Tarter believes in giving back to the community in which he lives and does business, and is regularly involved with Rotary and Chamber of Commerce auctions, raffles and other efforts to raise money for community projects. His shop, which employs 15 people, also sponsors Little League and high school sports.

"You do it, first and foremost, because you like doing your civic duty, doing something for the community where you've lived for 27 years, and I do enjoy that," Tarter says. "Otherwise, it's too easy to get caught up in your own world and your day-to-day stuff."

And while Tarter's efforts may be unique among collision repair shop owners in his town, it's not hard to find shop owners around the country doing similar things for their communities.

"It doesn't take too long in talking with just a few shop owners, managers and technicians to realize this is a very giving industry," says Chuck Sulkala, executive director of the National Auto Body Council.

Shops paint trucks for kids

Gigi Walker is another shop owner who has found a way to make a difference in the lives of children and families in her community.

Walker, owner of Walker's Auto Body in Concord, California, participates each fall in a friendly competition - among shops in the East Bay Chapter of the California Autobody Association, including Mike's Autobody also of Concord - to customize models of tractor-trailers.

"Usually about a dozen East Bay area shops participate, and each has about two and a half months to customize their truck," Walker said. "Some of the shops put hundreds of hours into these trucks. Then in November we get together for a big dinner and auction. The trucks get auctioned off for anywhere from $200 to $1,000 each."

While the silent auction is taking place, the fancy paint jobs and other customizing work done on the trucks are judged by a 3-person panel that generally includes a local artist and a local or state government official. At the end of the evening, all of the funds raised through the auction are presented to uniformed Marines who attend on behalf of the Toys for Tots charity.

"We had about 250 people at the dinner last year, and we ask each of them to bring a new toy to donate as well," Walker said. "A lot of people bring more than one, so this last year in addition to the $4,000 we raised, Toys for Tots received 300 to 400 toys as well.

"It's really a one-of-a-kind event," Walker said. "It really brings our industry together and lets our techs showcase their stuff - in a small way, but for a great cause."

Donating a repaired car

Brad Shelton said that several years ago Akzo Nobel brought him an idea for another way he could give back to his community - and he's been giving a car away to a needy family every year since.

"I like to give back to people and try to help people out. That's just kind of my nature," said Shelton, owner of Shelton Collision Repair in Derby, Kansas. "I felt like this was a fantastic opportunity."

A growing list of Acoat selected shops in the U.S. and Canada participate in the Akzo Benevolence Program by repairing a vehicle to give to a family in need each December. The shops generally work with a charitable organization in their community to select a family in need of reliable transportation.

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"I ask the two charities I work with to narrow it down to two or three families, because the first year I was given the stories of 10 or 12 families, and reading what these people had been through made me want to give 10 cars away," Shelton said.

He said his vehicle donations generally go to women with children trying to get their lives back in order after leaving abusive relationships. In addition to the vehicle, he invites other businesses and individuals to donate other items on the family's "wish list."

"Last year, we had about $2,000 in other items with the car, including a washer and dryer that we delivered and installed," Shelton said. "I use the cash donations to maybe give a money order payable to their landlord, or gift cards for gas, and maybe a small amount of cash to the mom so she can buy a Christmas gift or two for her kids that's 'from her.'"

Akzo's Chris Donnelly said he has worked to increase the number of shops participating in the program which he based on an effort started in 1994 by Dave Adams of Dave Adams Classic Auto Repair in Orem, Utah. Donnelly said shops are often able to find vendors to donate necessary parts, a mechanical shop to provide oil changes for the vehicle for a year, and an insurance agent who will donate liability coverage for several months or a year. He said many technicians decide to do the work without pay to help the cause.

Like Shelton, many of the shop owners involved in the program put their own unique spin on it. Some have gotten insurers or salvage yards to donate the vehicle. In Florida, a group of shops works together to repair and give away vehicles.

Joe Lewright of Ellis & Salzar, a shop in Austin, Texas, worked with a local Head Start program to establish a "responsible parent of the year" program, in which the winner receives the vehicle. He works to make sure the donation to the family includes bicycles for the kids "so the parents aren't the only ones that get wheels that day."

Procare Automotive & Collision in San Antonio, Texas, was actually invited to present its car to a family on the local "Good Morning, San Antonio" television show. After the broadcast, the producer of the show said the station's phones lit up with calls from viewers saying how much they appreciated and were touched by the show of generosity.

That kind of positive publicity is great for the shop and the industry, Shelton said, but it isn't why he participates in the program.

"You can't believe the feeling that overcomes you when you're doing this, when you know you're impacting somebody's life so much," he said. "I've even thought the last couple years about not publicizing it, because I don't like to draw attention to myself. But I've decided it doesn't do it justice to keep it secret, because it's really a nice story, a Christmas story. I make it public to let people know there are people out there who like to help. And it makes your employees look and feel good, seeing that you do the right thing, that you all give back to the community, that you try to help people."

Shop focuses on "safe kids"

At the Pace Auto Group in Huntington, Indiana, for example, looking out for the safety of children has become part of the daily life of the dealership's collision repair center.

"We began by doing bicycle rodeos through the shop just to give something back to the community," said Jeff Rice, manager of the shop. Each child was fitted with a new bicycle helmet after watching a 15-minute video on bike safety. They could then practice their new skills on a fenced-in bicycle "obstacle course" with instructors coaching them on such things as obeying stop signs and watching for cars.

"I think at our first event we gave out about 100 helmets," Rice said. "But we had 300 calls that first year for kids to sign up. So the next year we offered it to 200, and we did that for about four years, giving away 200 bicycle helmets every year."

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The shop is now among the most active participants in the "Safe Kids" program, checking for proper installation of child safety seats in cars and replacing seats that are found to have problems.

"We see somewhere between 30 and 40 people a month to do car seat inspections and installations," Rice said. "If the safety seat is bad, we give the parents a brand new seat at no charge."

Some of the funding for the 400 to 500 car seats Pace gives away each year comes from foundation grants and local donations. Becoming certified to participate in the program and train vehicle-owners on proper car seat installation required Rice to attend training over a 5-day period.

The company now has a written policy to inspect all car seats in vehicles that come through the shop.

"Once we've helped a customer get their car seat installed properly or given them a new car seat, they're our customer for life," Rice said. "But the main thing is we're helping to save the lives of kids in our community. It's hard not to feel really good about that."

Helping the image

Sulkala, who leads the National Auto Body Council's efforts to improve the image of the collision industry, says that folks like Tarter, Shelton, Walker, Rice and others involved in such efforts to give back to their community make his job easier.

"They're demonstrating what those of us in the industry know but that we need to make sure the general public sees and understands," Sulkala said. "And that's that this industry is made up of great and kind and generous individuals who through their efforts in their own shops and communities make us a very giving industry."

John Yoswick is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon, who has been writing about the automotive industry since 1988.

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