WILLMAR -- A unique donation program that gives cars to low-income people has experienced phenomenal growth.

Since it was started last year, Heartland Community Action Agency's "Helping people get there" program has collected 29 vehicles to provide low-income families with reliable transportation to work and school.

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Most of the vehicles have been donated by area residents. Businesses, including Jennie-O Turkey Store, have also donated cars and trucks.

The vehicles are refurbished by a growing list of local businesses that have teamed up to provide services at discounted rates.

So far, 12 vehicles have been given away to people in the four-county area, according to Barb Kavangh, Kandiyohi County family services supervisor, who gave a report on the program Tuesday to the County Board of Commissioners.

A letter from a recent recipient was read at the meeting that spoke clearly and plainly about the impact the donated vehicle has had on her ability to get to her job and to school. The single mother expressed gratitude for the vehicle and hopes that the program would continue so that others could also benefit.

The program is a way to help people on their "journey to self-sufficiency," Kavanagh said.

The number of vehicles that have been donated, and a lack of space to store them until they could be refurbished, caused the program director's home to look like a "used car lot," Kavanagh said.

Now, she said, the Kandiyohi Power Cooperative has agreed to allow Heartland to store the vehicles, free of charge, for the winter at their former facility in Willmar.

Midas Auto Specialists and the Ridgewater College Auto Tech program were the first to offer their services to refurbish the vehicles.

Since then, partnerships have been secured with Jergenson's Auto Repair, Crow River Auto Repair and the Car Shop Inc.

The average cost to repair each vehicle is $320, Kavanagh said.

Walt's Car Wash is also donating a free car wash and a half-price tank of gas before each vehicle is turned over to a new family.

Kavanagh said Heartland has also applied for a $70,000 grant from the Otto Bremer Foundation to augment the program.

For more information about the car donation program, call Heartland Community Action Agency at 320-235-0850.