Tammy Grigsby of Covington, KY, is ecstatic to be receiving free auto repair from skilled technicians. “This place is like angels in heaven to me,” she says.
After losing her job as a pastry chef in 2011, losing everything she owned in an apartment fire in 2012, and losing her unemployment benefits in 2014, Tammy no longer takes things like windshield wiper blades or air filters for granted.
“You buy a quart of oil or something for dinner—that’s where I am right now,” she says.
A few yards away from her, in the garage of Walther Autobody in Covington, a team of men in coveralls or flannel shirts and blue jeans is making sure Tammy’s money goes toward dinner.
They’re part of the Samaritan Car Care Clinic, a ministry of the Madison Avenue Christian Church in Covington that four times a year provides free, basic car maintenance for people in need. As they check the radiator fluid, replenish windshield wiper fluid, change the oil, and add air to the tires of Tammy’s 2004 Ford Taurus—which she bought six days before the restaurant where she worked closed and just paid off—the men know they’re doing more than helping Tammy hold onto money for a meal. They’re helping her hold onto hope for a job.
“So many of the cars we see are on their last leg, but this is all they have to drive—it’s not like if something’s wrong, they just hop into their other car,” says Tom Seeger, a retired Cincinnati Bell technician. “When the car’s down, they don’t go to work.”
And at the entry-level jobs most hold, if they don’t show up for work, they soon don’t have a job.
The car care program started nearly seven years ago after church members noticed that many of the people—especially women—showing up for free weekly dinners had serious problems with their cars. “From the work we do, we have a good feel for the needs of the poor, and the biggest challenge for the working poor is transportation,” the reverend Chinnamuthu Simon says.
Simon turned to church member Bruce Kintner, a PNC Bank vice president with car maintenance skills, who came up with the idea of the clinic and recruited other volunteers, among them an accountant, graphic designer, nursing home orderly, and claims agent.
After they advertised the service through Head Start programs and the Women’s Crisis Center, six women showed up for the first clinic in 2007.
Ever since, as soon as the clinics are announced, all 16 half-hour appointment slots are filled immediately. Walther Autobody donates use of its garage. Ashland Inc. donates Valvoline oil. The Women’s Fund of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation does an annual fundraiser. And in December 2013, Enquirer readers donated funds to pay for a year of the clinics.
About 90 percent of those who bring their cars in are women. Several have been living in their vehicles.
Some, like Grigsby, who says she knows nothing about cars and has no one who can help her, brings her car in every session. “I go on the Internet if I hear something wrong with my car and I start freaking out. To get a job, I have to keep my car safe,” she says. “I have no knowledge of cars, but I’ve been coming here for three years, and they’ve been teaching me. They just showed me how to put in transmission fluid and to check it.”
A basic understanding of their cars can be more than money-saving for the clients. It could be life-saving. Many of the cars have been so poorly maintained that they present a road hazard, Kintner says. He remembers a Pontiac Bonneville brought in that held 4.5 quarts of oil, but was down to a quart.
“It’s amazing that the engine didn’t seize up,” he says. “But it was going to.”
The tires on another woman’s car required 35 pounds of air pressure, but were running on only 15. “Even air takes money at filling stations, and she told us, ‘I don’t have the dollar,’ ” Kintner recalls.
While the volunteers don’t do major repairs like engine overhauls or brake jobs, they know that they are doing at the ground level what politicians and policymakers talk about all the time: helping people retain jobs.
“I get the feeling that 15 years ago, people wrote a check. Now people want to use their skills to help someone else,” says Greg Patterson, a Procter & Gamble employee and first-time volunteer.
He says the four hours of volunteering have left him with a better understanding of other people’s needs and a stronger sense of gratitude.
“There are times when I feel my finances are tight,” he says. “Not even close.”