Martin Schwartz, Baltimore native and president of Vehicles for Change, has high hopes for his growing business that helps ex-offenders and those less fortunate.
Schwartz’s nonprofit is a virtual anti-poverty program on wheels. Its team repairs and cleans high-quality donated cars and sells them for as little as $750 to eligible low-income families. They also offer low-interest car loans that allow recipients to build credit and even provide an orientation course to prepare buyers for car ownership.
In operation since April 1999, the organization has provided more than 5,100 cars to families in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area. Through a recent study, the organization found its customers had significantly reduced their commute times, and some were able to increase their household incomes, thanks to more reliable transportation.
“I started this organization to make a change for those less fortunate,” Schwartz said. “It’s really important for me to give back to every community, especially to low-income families who are trying to change their lives for the better by getting to work.”
Another organization called Full Circle Service Center grew out of Vehicles for Change. It grants employment to ex-offenders and trainees who detail and repair the used and donated cars in the Full Circle repair shop. It began in the spring of 2015, and the shop is also open to the public.
Sadonna Broadnax recently purchased a 2005 Toyota Sienna and welcomes the relief and peace of mind that comes with having a reliable vehicle.
“It’s going to be so nice to be able to rely on myself and not others to take me places like the grocery store.” — Sadonna Broadnax, recent car recipient, Vehicles for Change
“It’s going to be so nice to be able to rely on myself and not others to take me places like the grocery store,” Broadnax said. “It’s great that I will be able to sleep in a little longer instead of waking up at the crack of dawn to walk my kids to the bus and then figure out how to get to work. I will also be able to spend more time with my kids, which is amazing.”
Full Circle trainees learn the basics of automotive repair, and they also learn about more advanced aspects of the industry, such as working with Identifix, the database of motor vehicle problems and repairs used internationally, vacuum-assist power brakes and automatic traction control.
“It’s the largest program in the country for donating used cars to families of need,” Schwartz said. “It’s also considered by many to be the premier program of its type.”
Full Circle serves as a transition period for trainees who have been incarcerated and want to return as productive members of society. It provides training and job-search assistance. Upon successful completion, program trainees can become National Institute of Automotive Service Excellence-certified mechanics.
Alfred Johnson has worked as an auto technician at Full Circle for more than three years. He appreciates what he gets from the work and training.
“It’s a hard job,” Johnson said. “It can be mentally and physically straining and involves a lot of problem-solving skills. It is also uniquely different from most mechanic jobs because we get to meet the recipients of the cars we work on and [see] how our work impacts the lives of others.”
Full Circle also provides life-skills training and pro-bono legal advice.
“Cars make a huge difference in the lives of these families,” Schwartz said. “Over 70 percent of the people get better jobs with [use of] their new cars, and some obtain [an annual] salary increase of $4,800.”
With an eye for national expansion, Vehicles for Change recently opened a Detroit location last year, which has already sold 22 cars to low- income people and families.
“I’ve seen this company grow over the last three years, as they help more and more low-income families,” Johnson said. “I stay here for the overall objective that we are giving people hope for their futures.”
Kristen Maloney is a local freelance writer.