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Reid Benson works on a vehicle Thursday at Midas in Willmar. Midas is one of the area auto repair businesses that work on vehicles donated to Heartland Community Action Agency for it's "Helping People Get There" transportation program. Tribune photo by Gary Miller
Reid Benson works on a vehicle Thursday at Midas in Willmar. Midas is one of the area auto repair businesses that work on vehicles donated to Heartland Community Action Agency for it's "Helping People Get There" transportation program. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

Obstacles prevent participants in car donation program from being in driver's seat

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news Willmar, 56201

Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

Since receiving a donated vehicle through a community program, 83 percent of recipients have jobs, 73 percent no longer receive cash assistance or have reduced cash assistance, and 50 percent have started a savings account.

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Besides being able to look for jobs or get to their jobs on time, one woman is thankful she can now attend her children's school activities and drive to church, said Barb Kavanagh, re-telling some of the success stories of the Heartland Community Action Agency's "Helping People Get There" transportation program.

"This program really does change people's lives," said Kavanagh while giving a report this week to the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners.

Since it began in 2008, the program has received 128 vehicles in donation and has given away 59 vehicles in the four-county area the agency serves: Kandiyohi, McLeod, Meeker and Renville. Twenty-one of those vehicles went to Kandiyohi County families.

But Kavanagh said the program does have obstacles that still make it difficult for people to participate.

Getting insurance for the vehicles has been a big hindrance.

Kavanagh said the program requires participants to purchase six months of vehicle insurance before they can receive a vehicle. But she said a person's credit rating affects insurance rates, and because the participants are living in poverty, many have poor credit scores and saving up to buy insurance can be prohibitive.

Kavanagh said some of the participants are paying as much as $160 a month to insure an older-model donated vehicle.

"A lot of times that's really a problem," she said, adding that Heartland offers to work with families to improve their credit history.

Because the economy is forcing people to hang onto their cars longer, the age of donated vehicles has also been increasing. As a result, some of the donated vehicles are breaking down, resulting in costly repairs for recipients.

The donated vehicles are reconditioned before they are turned over to a new owner, but some families still end up with repair bills of $500, said Kavanagh.

Rick Erickson, director of the program, said the donated vehicles that need too many repairs to be reconditioned, or those that are gas guzzlers that would be too expensive for families to operate, are sold and the revenue is used to pay to recondition vehicles that are given away.

Kandiyohi, Meeker, McLeod and Renville counties have a contract with Heartland to provide the program. Kandiyohi County's fee of $10,055 is larger than the other three but about twice as many vehicles are given to Kandiyohi County recipients than the other counties.

In response to the greater need for donated vehicles in Kandiyohi County, the commissioners on Tuesday agreed to allocate an additional $20,000 in grant money to the car program specifically for county residents.

The investment appears to be paying off.

Participants must be receiving government cash assistance to qualify for the car program. Because a majority of the recipients of the vehicles are no longer getting that assistance, the program is saving counties an average of $550 per month per family, said Erickson.

Besides the economic benefits to the county and families, Commissioner Harlan Madsen said the program is also valuable because it helps families "prove to themselves" that they can be financially independent.

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