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Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Ride On

Back on her feet, Heather has transformed her life in just a few short months. In May, she finished a two-year prison sentence and has since landed a job, found a home to rent, and is now taking care of her two daughters. “I made a mistake, but it doesn’t define who I am,” says Heather (whose last name will remain anonymous). “I’m just trying to get my life back on track.” After weeks of walking more than a 10-block trek to work every day, the 38-year-old mother began looking for alternative ways of transportation. That’s when she was introduced to Tri-State Auto Mission.

Like many others the nonprofit organization helps, Heather couldn’t afford to buy a vehicle. She started completely from scratch when she was released from prison — with just a couple hundred dollars and her own two feet. She began reestablishing herself, and Tri-State Auto, which collects donated used cars and repairs and sells them at discounted rates, wanted to help.

In 2009, after searching for ways to give back to their community, Crossroads Christian Church members Jerry Nottingham, Andy Scheessele, and Jerry Childress came up with the used cars idea, as Nottingham was already involved in similar work. Since incorporating as a 501 (c)3 charity, Tri-State Auto has added 10 additional volunteers to its list of board members, all of whom either are retired or have outside jobs, and has also accumulated a network of body shops, car dealerships, and businesses that help repair and donate vehicles. “There’s a tremendous amount of good people in this world,” says Scheessele, owner of Schalco Garage Doors in Newburgh, Ind., “it just takes some time to find them.” From individuals who no longer want a second car to body shops that donate transmissions to car dealerships that sponsor a Tri-State Auto client, many people have taken to this unique mission.

Inspired by Heather’s transformation, Evansville’s Kenny Kent Chevrolet chose to give her a 2001 Dodge Caravan. The Women’s Club of Newburgh donated $3,000 to Tri-State Auto this year, and CAPE (Community Action Program of Evansville) donated $5,000 and two passenger vans in 2011, among other organizations.

By sharing office space with Schalco Garage Doors, the organization doesn’t pay rent. Since all members are volunteers, all of the funding goes back into the program. In 2012 alone, Tri-State Auto Mission was able to sell, fix up, or donate a total of 27 vehicles, bringing their grand total since inauguration up to nearly 100.

Working with women’s organizations, halfway houses, and other area nonprofits to get the word out to potential clients, Tri-State Auto is filling a specific need within the community. Through an application process, volunteers filter through piles of paperwork to determine if an applicant qualifies for the organization’s services. Their mission is to offer assistance to fellow, hardworking citizens who are going through financial struggles. Receiving two to three applications each day, the stories Tri-State Auto volunteers read are both heartbreaking and inspiring: a single father who needs a car for work, a couple who both walk to their full-time jobs to save money for their three children, or a mother of two trying to gain independence after leaving an abusive husband. Like it was for Heather, a car to the people in these stories can be the link to a better life — job flexibility, more time with kids, and a safer route to work every day.

When they first receive an application, three things are required of the applicant before they’re considered for a vehicle: they must have a job, a driver’s license, and be insurable. Once passing that initial test, an interview is set up to analyze the client’s pay and expenses. “We try to sit down and interview them to figure out if they can even afford to operate a car,” he adds. If a person can’t afford gas, oil changes, or other expenses that come with maintaining a vehicle, giving them a car would be more of a disservice in the long run.

Although the organization has given away vehicles, most clients are paying a sum that fits into their budgets. At a typical car dealership, most of the donated vehicles would range from $3,000-$4,000, says Childress, but Tri-State Auto sells them for $1,200-$1,500, which can be paid in full or over the course of a no-interest payment plan. Arrangements are made to benefit the clients, adds Childress. “We’re trying to recycle lives and recycle cars at the same time.”

For more information on Tri-State Auto Mission, including how you can donate or sponsor a client, call 812-858-3080, ext. 723.

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