ST. ALBANS — Just a few months ago, Amanda Wells barely had time to breathe. Between her duties as a single mom of two and working nearly 50 hours a week without a car, there wasn’t much time to spare. So when her father was rushed to Albany Medical Center with a cracked skull and bleeding in the brain, she was forced to call a timeout.
There was no question that she would be there for her dad. The question was how she was going to close the distance between her home in St. Albans to her father in Hudson Falls, New York.
The only answer she had took a toll on her already tight budget. Paying a friend to transport her, she was able to make it just in time for her father to have surgery. But when the ride she had lined up to go back home fell through, she ended up stranded in New York for a week, missing work and getting docked a paycheck.
For the busy mother, the financial stress, thrown on top of an already tragic family emergency, was almost too much. But on Nov. 21, her transportation problems were solved, thanks to a 2011 Subaru Outback and the Burlington-based nonprofit Good News Garage.
Established in 1996, Good News Garage takes used cars donated from the public, invests $2,000 in maintenance or repairs, before awarding the vehicle to a local family in need.
The majority of clients are referred to Good News Garage through Reach Up, Vermont’s assistance program for working families. The organization also has an open application program where people can qualify for a subsidized car. Known as the JumpStart program, a working person can apply to buy a car sold at half price.
“This is sometimes people’s only lifeline to get a vehicle,” Tom Kupfer of Good News Garage said.
Wells had been connected with the organization through her Reach Up case worker, and for the last two and half years had been utilizing Good News Garage’s Ready to Go ride share program. Described as the stepping-stone to getting a car, the Ready to Go program provides state Reach Up clients with a free van shuttle service, using mostly donated minivans. Because of Ready to Go, Wells was able to make it to the three jobs she worked around the county. However, flexibility was still an issue, especially with young kids.
“When I was working at Hannaford, they started cutting my hours because I would have to take time off to pick up my kids. Then if the kids had vacation, I would have to pay a cab to bring my kids to a sitter. ” Wells said. “It all starts to add up.”
Now, just over a month after receiving the first car of her life, Wells not only has a less stressful schedule, but she’s been able to increase her workload and make more money for her family. She is now working full-time hours, and saving up to invest in the future. But perhaps most importantly, she’s able to make up for a lot of time missed with family.
“This was the first year I was able to go visit my grandparents in the islands for Thanksgiving, and see my aunt from Massachusetts,” Wells said. “Then for Christmas, I was able to bring my dad up from New York and he stayed the whole month with us.”
It was one of the first Christmases in years Wells has been able to spend with her father, a true holiday miracle.
In the past year, Good News Garage has been able to donate 72 cars to people in Vermont. But despite the progress, lack of transportation remains a huge barrier for many low income Vermonters in Franklin County. With the rural nature of the region paired with limited public transit, many are left with few options.
“They call poverty a three-legged stool. There’s transportation, housing, and food, the three basic needs,” Kupfer said. “If one of those legs of the stool fall through then the stool falls over.”
According to the 2017 Basic Needs Budget prepared by the Vermont Legislative Joint Fiscal Office, the average Vermonter needs to budget between $500 to $1,000 per month for transportation costs. The maximum Reach Up grant given to a mother of two, like Wells, is just $640 a month. The numbers alone explain why transportation is the leg that’s tipping many community members over.
For the past two decades, Good News Garage has been working to bring stability to at least one side of the stool. Just this past month the organization awarded its 5,000th vehicle, and nearly half a dozen were awarded to St. Albans area residents in the fall alone. But with just a few more days remaining in the year, the organization says they are more than 250 short of its 550-vehicle year-end goal.
“Usually this time of year we’re just slammed with donations, but it’s been really quiet,” Kupfer said. “We’re down about 33 percent from last year.”
Kupfer says the lack of donations could be the result of a number of factors, but specifically pointed out the recent changes to tax laws.
Anyone who donates a vehicle to charity qualifies for a minimum of $500 tax deduction. If the car ends up going to a family, the donor will also receive a fair market value tax reduction based on the Kelley Blue Book value of the car. However, these deductions only count if itemized. Because the Trump administration’s recently passed tax plan doubles the standard deduction, or the amount taxpayers are allowed to reduce their adjusted gross income (AGI), many are finding it more financially beneficial to just take the standard deduction, rather than itemize.
“[The change] has made it a lot harder for the average person to make enough charitable donations to qualify for a deduction,” Kupfer said.
But even though the donations have slowed, the demand is still there.
“This winter, there is an especially large amount of families without a reliable vehicle in their household,” Good News Garage’s assistant director of operations, Amy Barcomb said. “If we are unable to close this gap before the New Year, many Vermont families will face a long, cold winter without a reliable car.”
For those that may be interested, Monday is the last chance to donate a car to qualify for a 2018 tax deduction. If donors have the title of a vehicle postmarked to Good News Garage by Dec. 31 they will still qualify. The organization will also pick up any car in the state.
“It’s last minute, but you never know, people might read this and get super inspired,” Kupfer said to the Messenger.
Wells encourages people to donate if they can.
“I’ve missed so many things just in my family because I was without a car. I missed my cousin’s wedding. My uncle just passed recently and I missed a lot of time I could have spent with him,” Wells said. “So if people do have a vehicle that can be donated, definitely do it. There’s so many people that are just working for minimum wage, or working paycheck to paycheck and don’t have the extra money to go spend $2,000 on a car. So go donate, because it definitely can help out a lot of people.”
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