Cathy Heying has seen people struggle, having worked at St. Stephen’s Human Services since 1999, currently as a human rights advocate. One challenge in particular kept resurfacing: clients needed money to fix their cars. Without cars, they might not make it to work. Without a job, they might not be able to pay rent. And so the problem became bigger than a flat tire or worn-out brake pads.
“Somebody should do something about this,” Heying thought more than once. Eventually, Heying realized that she was that somebody. At age 38, she enrolled at Dunwoody Institute in Minneapolis and graduated two years later, in 2010, with an associate’s degree in auto technology. Heying put her new skills to work as founder and executive director of the Lift Garage, a nonprofit organization that provides low-cost car repair to people in need.
Dunwoody was a huge challenge, Heying recalled. “I was certain I was going to quit multiple times,” she said. “I was a middle-aged lesbian with a bunch of 18-year-old boys. We had not the slightest idea what to do with one another. …” There were two other young women in her class at first, but Heying was the only one to graduate with her class.
Supportive professors, one of whom now sits on the Lift’s board of directors, helped Heying succeed, as did her future customers. “I kept being motivated by people who are working really, really hard just to survive. If [the Lift] can be a small part of making their lives just a tiny bit easier, then that’s worth it,” she said.
Being worth it doesn’t necessarily mean the work is easy. Between the two jobs, Heying works six days a week. “It’s challenging sometimes to hold all the pieces,” she said. But she also acknowledged: “I’m really lucky at the end of the day, because I have two jobs that I absolutely love.”
It has also been challenging to raise enough money to enable the Lift to meet demand. “I need the magic money fairy to just come by and drop off a million dollars,” Heying joked.
Plenty of demand
When the Lift opened in April 2013, it was open only on Saturdays and Heying was the only paid mechanic; the rest were volunteers. Now the shop is open Wednesdays through Saturdays and there are an additional one-and-a-half paid tech positions. Demand is high – appointments are scheduled about six weeks out – and a core of about 35 volunteers work as mechanics or staff the front desk and do other office work.
The Lift serves people who earn 30 percent or less of the area median income. For a household of one, that’s about $17,000 a year; for a family of four, it jumps to $24,700. Customers are charged for the cost of parts, plus $15 per hour for labor.
Heying hopes to eventually offer repairs on a sliding-fee scale, since there are many people who can’t afford expensive car repairs, even though they do not fall within current income guidelines. As of last December, Heying estimated that her customers saved over $21,000 in car repair costs when comparing the Lift to other garage’s market rates.
Heying also hopes to expand the Lift’s services to include a job training program. She is particularly interested in recruiting women mechanics, people experiencing homelessness and those transitioning out of the criminal justice system. “We know that it is so much cheaper to prevent people’s homelessness than to help them move out of it,” Heying said. “If the Lift can help play that role in some cases, then that’s amazing.”
While customers vary – older people living on Social Security income and people with disabilities are some – the majority of those served are women, Heying said. At least a few customers were living in their cars when they brought them in to be fixed. In those cases, Heying said, “We’re not just fixing a car, we’re fixing a home.”
That hospitality lies at the foundation of the Lift, Heying said. With a bachelor’s degree in social work and a master’s degree in pastoral ministry, Heying feels called to this work.
“For me, personally, it has very much been led by the Holy Spirit or the Universe or whatever name you want to give that,” she said. “It’s very much been out of a belief that we are called by an entity greater than us to be in right relationship with one another. That is what justice is. It’s about righting relationships that have been wronged. That’s really what I see the Lift being.
“Even though we’re fixing cars, it is about helping people balance the economic injustice they’ve been faced with.”