The Lift Garage
Podcast #64 — Aired June 15, 2015

What if a simple car repair could help lift a person out of poverty? Cathy Heying believes it can and that’s why she changed her life to become a mechanic and open The Lift Garage. Cathy is our guest this week on BetterWorldians Radio Spotlight. She’ll tell listeners what inspired her to become a mechanic at age 38, and how she’s changing lives in the process.

 

 

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Cathy Heying
Founder, The Lift Garage

Cathy Heying holds a BA in Social Worker, an MA in Pastoral Ministry and AAS degree in Auto Technology. With her variety of degrees Cathy likes to joke that she just prays over cars rather than doing any actual mechanics. Cathy worked for 15 years as an advocate with people experiencing homelessness before founding The Lift Garage. The Lift is a nonprofit auto repair shop that provides low cost car repair for low income people.

 

Episode Transcript

Raymond Hansell
Hi welcome to BetterWorldians Radio. BetterWorldians Radio is a weekly broadcast whose mission is to uplift and inspire you to make the world a better place. This week were introducing a new feature called BetterWorldians spotlight, the content you know and love formatted for quick and easy listening. Im Ray Hansell and today our spotlight focus is on Cathy Heying, the founder of the Lift Garage. Cathy Heying holds a BA in Social Work, and an MA in Pastoral Ministry and a degree in Auto Technology. With her variety of degrees Cathy frequently likes to joke that she just prays over cars rather than doing any actual mechanics. Cathys worked for fifteen years as an advocate with people experiencing homelessness before founding The Lift Garage. The Lift Garage is a nonprofit auto repair shop that provides low cost car repair for low-income people. So now let me welcome Cathy and my co-host MarySue Hansell.

MarySue Hansell
Hi Cathy, welcome to BetterWorldians Radio.

Cathy
Hi, thanks for having me.

MarySue Hansell
Were really looking forward to hearing this story. You know car problems can be a huge stumbling block for people trying to pull themselves out of poverty. Can you tell us more about that, what you found?

Cathy
Absolutely. One of the things that inspired to start The Lift Garage was my experience with people in homelessness and poverty, and encountering so many people for whom the story was very similar. You know, they would come to the church or the social service agency where I worked and they would be asking for money to, you know, pay for a four, five hundred dollar car repair, and the story was often, you know, I work second shift in the suburbs, I live in the city, theres no bus that runs at eleven oclock when I get off at night and without my car working Im not going to be able to get to work, and if I cant get to work Im going to lose my job, and then Im not going to be able to pay rent, and Im going to end up on the streets. And, you know, some variations within that, but a lot of that same story over and over. And I just kept thinking about that this seems so easy, using that term very loosely to figure it out, you know, we should be able to provide affordable car care for folks who are struggling with low incomes. And, you know, by doing so we can just fill in a gap that prevents so much additional travesty and tragedy and expense. And you know everybodys better when people can take care of themselves.

MarySue Hansell
Thats true.

Cathy
The people themselves are better, and the community is better when were all able, you know, to get our basic needs met.

MarySue Hansell
Yes, Ive experienced that same thing with some of our past employees that were not able to get to work because they had, they werent able to pay for the car repairs. So I can really relate to your story. But you decided to do something about it, how did you make that decision to become a mechanic?

Cathy
Well, not willingly. As you all said in the intro I already had a masters degree and a very lovely life, not that I dont now, but its just, I didnt need anymore schooling or really anything else. But I just kept thinking about the idea and you know one of those sort of moments where its like, well, you know, if somebodys going to do something, why shouldnt that somebody be me. I mean Im just as qualified in some ways as other people in the sense that I have access to resources and the time to make it happen. So but I did, I was really reluctant about the whole thing quite frankly. I didnt, I was still paying on my grad student, grad school student loans, I you know, I didnt want to do anymore schooling. But I took it one step at a time and I thought well Ill just go down to the tech school and have a conversation with them. That doesnt mean anything in particular. And then, so I did, and when I got there the director said, oh well I just want to let you know that this is like March, if youre thinking of starting in the fall Im going to need an application from you by the end of the week because the program books up that quickly and I only have four slots left. So I was like, dang it. And so then I kept, oh alright, well I can send in an application but that doesnt mean Im going to be accepted or that I even need to go, and you know, so I was just sort of reluctant the whole way. And when I got to school, I was in over my head, you know, it was a whole different language, it was a whole different culture, Im not a good auto technician, and thats not just humility speaking. I just, my brain thinks in feelings and ministry and systems, it does not think in science, and math, and mechanics. And so its been a huge learning curve for me.

MarySue Hansell
Boy you sure are a BetterWorldian, a great BetterWorldian. That took a lot of courage. How did you get The Lift Garage up and running? You know, did that take funds, what did you have to do?

Cathy
Yeah, quite honestly when I went back to school and I sort of had this seed of an idea, I genuinely didnt know that it was going to look like what it does. I thought well maybe its going to be me just fixing a few peoples cars in my driveway on Saturday afternoons. I mean, I didnt know if I knew enough about it to make something big happen, I didnt know that I wanted to. So I just, thats why, people often ask me well you could of done this without going back to school, and I could have, but again I didnt know. I thought it might just be me, so I thought I need to have the skills. But it also gives me credibility when Im talking to funders or supervising other mechanics or things like that. But so basically what I did when I graduated was I just made a list of people that I, of titles, rather than actual specific individuals, of people that I thought would have information that might be helpful to me. So you know, lawyers, garage owners, mechanics, nonprofit directors, people who raise money, you know, I just made that kind of list and then I went back and filled in with names of people who actually that I knew, you know. Who do I know thats a nonprofit director? Okay, put their name by that slot. And then I just started, the people that I knew, I started calling and setting up, you know, times to meet for coffee and I would sort of pick their brain and what do you think, and what would this look like to you. And then at the end of each of those conversations I say, who are three other people who I should be talking to, and can you help me, you know, connect, make that connection. And ultimately my entire list was filled in, and through all those conversations, whats now The Lift Garage started to take place. So then the next practical steps were board of directors and applying for nonprofit status, which required you know a bunch of paperwork, like you know bylaws and conflicts of interest policies and you know so all that stuff sort of got in place. And then, then it was some fundraising and then, and mostly that was like I think all nonprofits, you start with hitting up your friends and family. And so, you know, we did that and then just you know, kept being open, right. My philosophy in this whole thing has been if the door opens walk through it. And even if you dont know whats on the other side, even if you dont know what to expect, even if youre scared, even if you dont have all the information or all the pieces, that theres the door, it just opened in front of you, go figure it out.

MarySue Hansell
Well I think thats very inspiring and just great advice for anyone whos listening that might be, you know, a little afraid of going into their next step. How are your customers charged? Or do you charge them?

Cathy
We do charge.

MarySue Hansell
Okay.

Cathy
So we charge fifteen dollars an hour for labor.

MarySue Hansell
Wow.

Cathy
To put that into perspective, in the Twin City metropolitan area, market rates if you were to go to an ordinary shop you would pay anywhere from a hundred to a hundred and thirty dollars an hour for labor.

MarySue Hansell
Oh thats a bargain.

Cathy
So yeah, so were fifteen dollars an hour for labor. And then we also charge customers for the cost of the parts, but we get them at a discount. So whatever we pay, is what they pay. We dont do any mark up on the parts, which is also atypical. Most shops will mark up parts forty to sixty percent usually. So usually customers on average pay about twenty-eight to thirty percent of what they would pay in the market with us.

MarySue Hansell
Oh thats wonderful. Now whats it like being a mechanic compared to your life before? You say you were a social worker and a minister before, and now youre a mechanic. Hows that, how do you feel about that? What are the differences?

Cathy
Well, you know, its I have a lot of feelings about it as you could imagine. Its you know, if youd have asked me ten years ago, you know, if you had told me that this was where my life was going to be, I would of laughed hysterically and said not a chance. But it just shows how we, you know, as the old saying goes, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans, right?

MarySue Hansell
There you go.

Cathy
Just like that. At the end of the day though, its you know, I love working on cars, although I dont get to do it as much anymore because I have staff now. But its very concrete, which isnt always true of social work or ministry or other sorts of professions. But I can go home at the end of the day and say, you know what we had three cars that were towed in and none of them started, and all three customers drove away in their running cars today.

MarySue Hansell
That must feel good.

Cathy
Yeah, thats a great feeling. And so far, it hasnt happened where a car has driven in and had to be towed out, so thats my low bar. But, lets get them towed in and drive out, not drive in and towed out. So its I do appreciate that, and the beautiful thing about The Lift it is a mix of things that I care deeply about, you know, I still have a lot of interaction with people, I still, you know, we still hear the stories and work with people, trying to help them, you know, face the struggles of keeping the pieces of their lives together. But I also get this really concrete aspect, you know. Weve been open about fourteen months now and we have saved customers about two hundred and ten thousand dollars in car repair costs.

MarySue Hansell
Wow.

Cathy
Since weve opened.

MarySue Hansell
Thats fantastic.

Cathy
So, yeah, its very exciting.

Raymond Hansell
Its an amazing story, it sounds to me, this is Ray again, that youve gone from fixing people to fixing their cars. Actually youre, people come to you with some broken situations and youre fixing them, and now in a very concrete way. And at the same time youre fixing them along the way as well. So its an amazing story and its certainly inspiring to all our listeners who are looking to take that kind of leap of faith that says, yeah I want to do something, how do I do it? Well you take a step, you take a step, thats what so many of our BetterWorldian guests have talked about. Were going to take a short break right now, but well be back to talk more with Cathy Heying, the founder of The Lift Garage and my co-host MarySue. Before we go I want to let our listeners know that if youre a fan of BetterWorldians Radio, you check out our popular social game on Facebook called A Better World. It rewards players for doing good deeds while helping to raise money and awareness for charities. So far weve actually had over thirty-five million good deeds done by over three million people in that social game, A Better World. In the month of June were supporting the Doctor Phil Foundation to assist CASA, which has a mission to promote court appointed volunteer advocacy for children in need. And were challenging our players to complete three hundred thousand good deeds in this month, and when they do, and which Im sure they will, well release funds for the I Am For The Child campaign, which recruits volunteers who advocate for abused and neglected children. Well be right back.

Raymond Hansell
Welcome back to BetterWorldians Radio spotlight. Were talking with Cathy Heying, the founder of The Lift Garage. And now please welcome back Cathy and my co-host MarySue.

MarySue Hansell
Cathy you know I was wondering, what kind of response do you get from the people that you, you know, fix their cars? I mean what do they say, are they really happy, shocked, surprised?

Cathy
Yeah, all of the above, and I would say thats about ninety-eight percent of our customers are just really, really thrilled and are just really grateful to have the opportunity to keep making the pieces of their lives work. I mean thats all any of us really want at the end of the day, is to just be able to keep juggling all the balls and keep doing it ourselves and sometimes we just need a little, somebody to jump in every now and then and throw one of the balls back in the air when we couldnt quite catch it. And I feel like thats what The Lift does. If I were to say, I wouldnt be honest if I said everybody loves us, because people are people and humans are humans and you know, so we can have some people who get frustrated with us, but its usually because Ive told them we arent going to fix their car because I dont think its worth it. You know, we see a lot of old, old cars, and you know when somebody comes in and needs you know, a thousand dollars worth of work at our rate on a twenty-two year old car, thats like, you know, this isnt a good use of your very limited resources.

MarySue Hansell
I see.

Cathy
And so people get angry with me sometimes, but Id rather them be angry with a thousand bucks in their pocket than angry without it.

MarySue Hansell
Thats right, sounds like youre giving them good advice. How do they hear about you?

Cathy
Oh I have no idea.

MarySue Hansell
Maybe word of mouth, you dont advertise do you?

Cathy
Yeah.

MarySue Hansell
Oh you do advertise?

Cathy
No, no.

MarySue Hansell
Oh okay.

Cathy
No, we, people are very resourceful and they, you know, they find what they need. But we currently have a three month waiting list.

MarySue Hansell
Oh geez, okay.

Cathy
Thats my biggest challenge of this whole endeavor, thats mostly what stresses me out the most. Because I you know, in the scenario I described at the beginning of our conversation of you know, the person who couldnt get to work, you know, because their cars broke down, its like well in three months when I can get you an appointment, your jobs going to be long gone. And weve tried a variety of ways to deal with the demands, you know, in terms of how we schedule appointments and things like that. And you know at the end of the day some of its just pure capacity, its like, were growing exponentially. When we started two years ago we were open one day a week, it was me and another handful of volunteer mechanics, you know, now were open five days a week, Ive got two full time mechanics, one part time mechanic, I still fill in as a mechanic when Im not doing fundraising and other administrative stuff. We have two bays, were about to open a third on July 1st, and we still get about forty or fifty calls a week.

MarySue Hansell
Wow.

Cathy
So we just, we cannot, we just cannot keep up with the need. And so, some its just no matter what we do, its just a pure capacity thing, you know. We could run probably eight bays, six days, seven days a week and we might be able to keep up but that just costs a lot of money.

MarySue Hansell
Well Cathy, that sounds like, sounds like a good time to ask, how can our listeners help support The Lift Garage?

Cathy
Im so glad you asked that, my favorite question. You know, of course, you know, money is our biggest need because with money we can rent additional space, we can be open more hours, we can hire more mechanics, you know, more front desk staff, things like that. We still rely heavily on volunteers for those things, but we you know, we just need more capacity. People can go to our website www dot The Lift Garage dot org, theres a donate button there and they can click on that and give a one time donation, and we also have a sustaining donation program set up where we would love your, to have you support us in five, ten dollar a month increments, or a hundred dollar a month, whatever you can afford. That just really helps us, you know, be assured as we go month to month of some, you know, solid amount of income each month. But, you know, we take in about four thousand dollars a month in earned income from the labor charge, but it costs us about ten to eleven thousand dollars a month to run the place.

MarySue Hansell
Oh boy.

Cathy
So were constantly scrambling to make up the difference.

MarySue Hansell
Well hope all of our listeners will dig in their pockets and donate for you.

Cathy
Absolutely.

MarySue Hansell
You know another really great thing that you do, is I see that youre hiring people that have trouble getting jobs elsewhere. Why dont you tell us a little bit about that and maybe some case studies that you might mention?

Cathy
Sure. I have a high value of having everybody have opportunities for second and third chances. So I think we all deserve that, and many of us get them all the time without being aware of it, and so its a high value of mine to use The Lift as a way to hire people that might not otherwise get a job. So all three of my techs right now, all three of them have experienced homelessness, all three of them have some criminal records that are, you know, its in their past, all three of them happen to be trained techs. One of my techs is thirty-five years, hes a master tech but he ran into some financial trouble and that led to some other things. So and my favorite story about that, his name is Charlie and Charlie started volunteering with us about a year and a half ago. I met him when I was, he was still experiencing homelessness when I was doing that work, and I said well why dont you come down to the garage and start volunteering with us, which he did, and hes amazing and brings a lot to the shop, and I said to him, I really want to be able to offer you a job, but we just dont have the money yet. But, you know, thats kind of in my plan, and it was in the budget starting in January of this past year. And in October of last year a neighboring shop, a regular for profit shop that had kind of helped us with a few things, or gives us advice, or things. Charlie had gone up there and talked to them several times about, can we borrow this tool, or that sort of thing. Well the owner of that shop called me and said, hey do you have Charlies number. And I said, sure but why? And he said well I want to offer him a job.

MarySue Hansell
Oh dear.

Cathy
And I was like, no, no, no hes mine.

MarySue Hansell
Oh geez.

Cathy
Oh so basically a very long story short, I scrambled and I talked to my board and said I cant lose Charlie, and can we offer him a few hours at least now even though we didnt have it budgeted for a couple more months, and so I was able to basically offer him a couple days a week at fifteen dollars an hour. Well it turns out that the guy up the road offered him thirty hours a week at twenty dollars an hour, and then after Charlie sort of proved himself, he would bump him up to forty hours a week and twenty-five dollars an hour. And I said, theres just no way I can match that. I might be able to match the hours ultimately, but Im not anytime soon going to be able to get you twenty-five bucks an hour. And I totally understand what you need to do. End of the day, Charlie chose to stay with us.

MarySue Hansell
Isnt that wonderful.

Cathy
Even though I was offering him, you know, ultimately ten bucks an hour less. Now hes full time, but at the time I was only offering him two, three days a week. And he said youve been good to me, you gave me a chance when nobody else would, you gave me hope, you gave me an opportunity to believe in myself and my skills again, and nobody else would even give me a second look, and the guy up the road wouldnt have even looked at me six months ago. It was only because you gave me this chance that he thought I might have something to offer, and so Im so grateful and I just want to stay here, and money isnt everything.

MarySue Hansell
You know, thats wonderful. You know I wanted to ask you too, thats such a happy story about some of your employees, I wanted to ask do you have a favorite story about a customer that you helped too? Because I thought the listeners would be interested in hearing that, someone who, you know, you fixed their car and it made a big difference in their life.

Cathy
This was a little bit of an unusual story in that we didnt do the fix.

MarySue Hansell
Okay.

Cathy
You know, a woman who came to us, she had bought, she had gotten a job that she needed a vehicle for, had bought a 2004 van, brought it to us for something else, and while we had it up on the lift, we said, you know, your entire engine cradle mount is rusted away, which is the, part of the frame that essentially holds the engine in, you know, so were like this is very, very dangerous, you should not be driving, you should not be hauling kids around. And but we all agreed it was a little unusual because the cars only ten years old, and it should not have that sort of kind of damage, or that sort of rust. So I did some quick research and found out that this was a chronic problem on this particular make and model that the manufacturer had done a little bit towards, but not done a lot. But theres some lawsuits pending about it, and I said, you know what you should do is, you know, go to one of the dealers and ask them to, you know, make a good faith repair, a goodwill repair rather. And she said, I dont know anything about how to do that, and so I wrote her a letter from the garage saying this is what we found, you know, this is why we wont do these other repairs, because this vehicles this. And then I found a couple of articles on the Internet and I printed them off and talked her through it and she was like four or five months out of the warranty for this, for the cradle issue, and sent her on her way. And then she came back about three weeks later, called back, and I said, whats going on, hows it going? And she said, I went to one dealer and they wouldnt do anything about it, so I went to another dealer and they fixed it all for free.

MarySue Hansell
Oh wow.

Cathy
Five thousand dollars worth of repairs. And I was like, yeah, right there. Im so glad that we all didnt just give up, or you didnt just get rid of the car, and you know, the dealer made good. So its you know, we try to help fix peoples you know, cars ourselves, but we also try to help them you know find the language, and find the empowerment to advocate for themselves in issues related to their vehicles.

Raymond Hansell
Yeah, thats an amazing story. You really what youre doing is says it all in your name. Youre giving people a lift. And you know we all need a lift from time to time, and I think that these stories with Charlie, etc., and with the customers that you just described, thats a fitting title, fitting name is giving people a lift at The Lift Garage. So how do you hope that at the end of the day, we always ask this of all of our guests, how do you hope this work that youre doing here at The Lift Garage will help make the world a better place?

Cathy
I think thats a great question. I mean I think, you know, theres the obvious answer of keeping peoples lives secure by providing them with safe and affordable transportation, but the other values that we really try to practice, Ive been in social services a long time, and Ive watched as people have had to, you know, lose their dignity time and again just to try to get their basic needs met, or you know, spend hours and hours of time to try to prove that theyre you know deserving. And I think we really try to embody a different philosophy at The Lift. Its like, were going to do due diligence, but Im not going to like, you know, go to the ends of the earth to you know, make sure that you know, that you arent lying to us, or you know. Because in my experiences, people arent. You know, Ive been doing this a long time, and theres not that many people out there that are trying to scam the system. And so just trying to create a sense, an environment thats full of hospitality that says to people directly or indirectly I trust you, Im so glad youre here, you know, stay have a good cup of coffee, we only have, you know, organic Fair Trade high quality coffee in the waiting room, you know, your kids are welcome here, your, we have customers that stop back, even when they dont need their car fixed just for a cup of coffee to check in. Because I think when people are in poverty, they get treated as second class.

Raymond Hansell
Right.

Cathy
And that wreaks so much havoc on of course their own lives, but then all that energy that you know gets put out there in the world, and its like we can do so much better just by being kinder to each other and by offering people the dignity that they inherently have and deserve.

Raymond Hansell
Yeah, we have another guest this month that resonates with this message as well thats going to be talking about micro loans and basically how people around the world in other parts of the world that are even more impoverished than here in our country, have experienced that dignity by basically receiving a loan which universally across the board like almost a hundred percent of these people pay back.

Cathy
Right.

Raymond Hansell
They receive dignity, in exchange theyre lifting themselves, you know, out of a situation and theyre using their resourcefulness and their responsibility to do so. So its a great, great story that resonates not only here, but also around the world. For our listeners you can find out more about The Lift Garage by going to The Lift Garage dot org. Cathy, thank you so much for joining us today on BetterWorldians Radio.

Cathy
Thank you so much for the opportunity.

Raymond Hansell
Youre very, very welcome. As we end our show each week we like to share our BetterWorldians mission. We strive to make the world a better place by encouraging the very best in everyone. We focus on positive thinking, positive values, and today, primarily on positive actions. So in short our vision is to bring out the BetterWorldians in everybody, so that we can all make it a better world. And so until next time everyone, please be a BetterWorldian.