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Vehicles for Change revs it up


Fraser Smith Big

The president of Heritage Automotive, offering a decent approximation of an Indy race starter, watched the 20 drivers settle into their new cars.

“Drivers,” he said, “start your engines.”

All 20 vehicles behaved according to the script, sending the familiar sounds over the Poly-Western High School parking lot. A few cheers went up.

For the drivers that sound translated as freedom or transformational.

It meant that job holders were free of their frightful grip on not-always reliable bus transportation.

It meant grocery shopping was no longer dependent on the not-always healthy corner store.

It meant a nursing student could continue her studies with some confidence of an on-time completion.

It meant a mother or father could get to their son’s football game, or that one of the parents or both could work more hours, expanding their income.

It meant that Vehicles for Change had pulled off yet another coup. The 17-year-old program had done what it always does. It got critically important means of transportation into the hands of Baltimore-area workers whose job security depends on reliable transportation

But this time, the program delivered with a flourish, unveiling a new partner, Heritage Automotive, one of the largest companies of its kind with 19 dealerships in the region.

Joined by Mayor Catherine Pugh, Heritage President Steve Fader said his company would be helping Vehicles for Change hand over keys to another 20 families next spring.

Yesterday’s event marked the greatest number of new cars to new owners in the program’s history. The previous record was 15, set on its 15th anniversary.

Assets, not problems

The ceremony was held in a large white canvas event tent with the liberating cars parked just outside. Each of them came with a large silver bow on the hood.

Single mothers, a father of five, the nursing student and all the other recipients walked around their new freedom with just a hint of wonder. Was this really happening?

Martin Schwartz, only a little more composed, said the partnership with Heritage was difficult to accurately describe. He’d been negotiating the deal for some time.

He and Fader said the merger came as a result of automotive technicians, many of them ex-offenders who were placed with Heritage by Schwartz’s program.

Not usually eager to hire people who’ve been incarcerated, Heritage found these men excellent workers, well-prepared to do increasingly complex tasks. Some had pre-jail skills. Some started studying while in prison and some got further training at the Vehicles For Change garage in Halethorpe.

Why had Fader decided to throw in with Schwartz? Schwartz’s salesmanship and his determination were credited. Fader’s appreciation for an unexpected source of technicians — and his realization that these men were assets not problems waiting to happen.

And there was this, Fader said: “Everybody deserves a second chance.” Many believe this but not many follow through on it.

The presentation ceremony included Heritage salesmen in bright, logoed white company shirts standing with the new owners at cars suitably labeled.

Pugh, already a fan of Vehicles for Change, said the program’s new relationship with Heritage would become an important ally for the city as she pursues an important goal: improving transportation in the Baltimore region.

Vehicles for Change vets its owner/applicants with help from organizations like the Center for Urban Families. The new owners tend to spend about a thousand of their own dollars for a car with 100,000 or so miles. Ideally, the car would sustain a family for as long as it took to afford a replacement. The new cars could make a worker seek better, higher-paying jobs.

A nonprofit, the program also trains auto detailers who tend to be successful in finding work at private detailing companies. It maintains its own sales lot for donated cars deemed salesworthy. Contributors typically get a substantial tax break — more value than they might get in a trade-in.

Schwartz, constantly on the lookout for expansion opportunities, says his program now has outlets in Massachusetts, Virginia and Michigan.

The Heritage partnership, he said, may open other markets.

Is the program going national?

He smiled.

C. Fraser Smith is a former newspaperman and writer in Baltimore. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. He can be reached at

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