Tampa Tribune: Wheels Programs Gets Needy Rolling

There was no time for a bittersweet goodbye. The tow-truck driver hooked the thick cable to the underside of the car, hauled it onto the bed of the truck and quickly motored away.

The Golden Retriever – what the grandsons called the goldish-beige car that for seven years fetched them from school, soccer and more – was off to a new home.

Since the Retriever had a troubled transmission, it wasn’t traded in as part of a new car deal. Instead, the family donated it to Wheels of Success, a program that is just 3 years old but has so far provided 100 families with vehicles to get to work.

Wheels was started by Susan Jacobs, whose personal experiences gave her an acute understanding of how important reliable transportation is to the working poor.

A relative helped her out when she was down on her luck. But many folks don’t have relatives who can help.

So they’re left out in the cold, waiting for buses that never come – or they rely on friends for rides.

Or worse. Because they have poor credit, or none at all, they’re forced to buy a junker – or something from a buy here-pay here car lot that charges high interest. Often it’s a car that wasn’t well-maintained in its previous life and will break down over and over again with ills that are expensive to fix.

Pay it Forward
The Retriever had a fair number of miles on it, but it had been taken care of. (I’m not revealing much else about the car, including its make and model, because Wheels wants to keep that information confidential.)

Aside from the transmission, the car was in good condition – but its worth on a trade was minimal.

Wheels had the car repaired, and on Labor Day, it was given to one of nine families that met the organization’s income and job criteria. They included two victims of domestic violence and several single moms. One woman drives from northeast Hillsborough to south county to work.

Eleven other vehicles, some donated by car dealers, are in the process of placement.

“If we could get each dealership to each donate one car, we could give out 100 cars a year,” Jacobs says. “The need is there.”

The recipients also are given a year’s membership in AAA, courtesy of AAA Auto Club South – one of Wheels’ sponsors – and help with repairing and maintaining their cars. In return, they pay a small amount based on their income, which helps the all-volunteer organization provide other vehicles to more working folks in need.

Applicants must be referred by agencies such as the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, The Spring of Tampa Bay, the Hillsborough County school district, Metropolitan Ministries, St. Joseph’s Hospital and others.

Employers also may refer workers to the program.

For information on donating money or vehicles to the program, or to receive a vehicle or nominate someone, go to wheelsofsuccess.org.

One Person Can Make A Difference
Since I first interviewed Jacobs in January 2004, the program has flourished. She developed an impressive board of directors and an equally impressive array of sponsors, including AAA Auto Club South, Bill Currie Ford, Sears Automotive, Creative Living, Thompson Cigars – her employer – and many others. The program also has received money from the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County.

All this from a woman who, not too many years ago, was down – but not out. When she got back on her feet, she actually reached out to help others.

What a concept.

Judy Hill| The Tampa Tribune