A group of local mechanics in Kokomo, Ind., is making sure the vehicles of some of the community’s most vulnerable are running and safe.
In June 2018, God’s Garage opened as a ministry of Crossroads Community Church after Tom Smith, a retired mechanic, said he felt called to put his talents to good use. In the time since, Smith and a team of 28 volunteers have repaired upwards of 200 vehicles for the elderly, single mothers, veterans, and the under-resourced out of the church’s maintenance barn.
“I knew that there was a need because, when I had my own shop, I could see it then,” Smith said. “You could tell that people weren’t able to get their car fixed, or they would beg you to do things because they couldn’t afford it. So that gave me a heads up of what it was going to be like in a way, but I had no idea there were as many in need.”
The work is done with no labor charges, and those needing repairs are asked to pay for the parts only. Smith has negotiated discounts with local part suppliers NAPA Auto Parts, AutoZone, O’Reilly Auto Parts, Discount Tire, Kokomo Auto Supply, and Dan Young Chevrolet, and those discounts are passed onto those in need. Smith estimated a total labor savings of $32,000 from June 2018 to July 2019.
The need has been so great that, despite not actively advertising the garage, the waitlist currently is around two weeks out. It’s been as far out as six weeks, said Smith. And he doesn’t like that.
So, Crossroads Church applied for a grant with Community Foundation of Howard County last year that would allow God’s Garage to expand – and the garage was awarded $41,770 to do just that. A large building approximately one mile from the current location was donated, and the grant will allow Smith and his team to renovate it to include lifts, a restroom, office area, and to purchase additional equipment.
With more space and resources, Smith hopes to be able to serve more people and get the waitlist down. That also will take more volunteers to do the work.
“The more help we have, we can have a shorter waiting list,” he said. “A car is an important thing nowadays. Sometimes you don’t realize it until all of a sudden yours doesn’t work. I think we’ve done a lot of good. We get a lot of thank-yous and tears when people come to pick up their cars. And the guys that help will come up to me and say, ‘You know, my heart feels really good about doing this.’ So it works both ways.”
For 85-year-old Shirley Oody, God’s Garage got the New Year off to a good start for her. For two years Oody had been trying to save $885 to get her car fixed after she got an estimate from a local repair shop for new struts. But she couldn’t come up with that kind of money. Before her husband’s death, he was in a nursing home with dementia, and Oody said it drained her savings.
“When you’re a widow, you’re 85 years old, you’re on Social Security – I don’t know nothing about cars, so I couldn’t do anything, just sit and wait until I got the money together. And I’ve still been trying to get the money together for two years, and I just couldn’t seem to get $885,” Oody said.
Recently, Oody's granddaughter heard about God’s Garage and the work they do for those in need, and she called for her grandmother. Smith got Oody scheduled, and the volunteers at God's Garage were able to fix her 2002 Chrysler Sebring. The parts cost Oody $263, and the volunteers changed her oil and topped off her fluids for free.
“They were so good to me, so nice,” she said. “Bless their hearts for taking care of the elderly, widows, and elderly men that can’t do the work anymore. They’re a blessing.”
Those needing work done must complete a basic online application, and requests typically are answered the same day. According to Smith, approximately 75 percent of those who request help are served, though larger requests, such as transmission repair or head gasket replacement, currently exceed the scope of the work provided.
Another woman who received help toward the opening of God's Garage was Kristen Garcia, a single mom of three. At that time, she recently had her 2002 Chevy Trailblazer repaired at a local repair shop for $270, but her vehicle broke down again the next day. Not having the funds to pay someone else, someone told her about God’s Garage, and Garcia was able to get her vehicle in.
Her Trailblazer wasn’t in great shape, and it took a couple of visits for its issues to be fixed. The parts, in total, cost Garcia around $200.
After the main issues were fixed, Garcia’s car wouldn’t start one day while she was at work, and she decided to give Smith and his team a call. She said they didn't hesitate to help, and one of the volunteers went to her work to see what the issue was. It was her battery, and the next morning, the volunteer brought Garcia a brand-new battery and hooked it up, all at no charge.
Since meeting Smith and the other volunteers, Garcia has stayed in touch with them, and she helps them out as her way of giving back. She often drives people to pick up their vehicles from God’s Garage and makes calls to those in need for Smith.
Late last year, Garcia was able to upgrade to a better vehicle, and Smith was there for her then, too. Smith went with Garcia to check out the vehicle before she purchased it to ensure she "wasn't buying a lemon."
“They are such a blessing to our community, and if Tom has anybody that needs anything, I help them out. He’ll be like, ‘Can you call her for me and find out what she needs?’ And I’ve brought people out there and dropped their car off and gave them a ride home. It’s just random strangers working together to help other people in the community, which is awesome for a single mom like me,” Garcia said.
Last Wednesday, the garage was teeming with volunteers who were working on four vehicles currently in the garage, and many vehicles were parked outside the garage, awaiting their turns for repairs.
Abby Fetterhoff was there watching her car, a 1999 Buick Century, get worked on. The volunteers were fixing a window that wouldn't roll up. They already had fixed one window in the front the had the same issue.
Fetterhoff said the volunteers have been a big help to her.
"They've done a lot for me," she said.
The volunteers benefit too, said Smith. When looking for ways to give back, Smith said men sometimes have a difficult time finding something they really enjoy doing. God's Garage, he said, provides them a different kind of volunteer opportunity — and learning experience for some.
A new, young volunteer, Ben Kurfman, recently joined the team, and he's been learning more about vehicle repair from veteran mechanics. Last week, he worked alongside volunteers Randy Stewart and Shawn Leonard who were fixing a belt on a van.
Dick Sanburn, pastor at Crossroads Community Church, commended Smith for the ministry he has grown.
“It has grown into a ministry where we care for people, really focusing on widows, single moms, veterans, under-resourced because what happens is if somebody’s car breaks down and you’re a single mom, it can start a death spiral because you can’t get to work. So you lose hours. Your pay goes down. You can’t make your rent payment, so a late fee kicks in,” Sanburn said. “It’s a spiral that is so hard to get out of, and so we’re trying to be able to keep people that are so dependent on their transportation, trying to keep them running and in good shape so they don’t have to deal with those things that can cause so many financial problems. And then those cause relational issues, and it’s just a whirlwind after that.”
In addition to working out of God’s Garage, Smith and volunteers also attend Crossroad Community Church’s monthly food and clothing pantry days to check fluids and tire pressure at no charge. From June 2018 to July 2019, on the monthly ministry days, 320 vehicles were checked and topped off. It took 249 quarts of motor oil, 74 gallons of windshield washer fluid, 46 gallons of antifreeze, 32 quarts of power steering fluid, and 13 quarts of brake fluid.
God’s Garage has an arrangement with Dollar General Distribution Center in Marion, which donates all unopened vehicle fluids returned to them from local stores.
“It’s amazing how many quarts we go through to help people take care of their cars and trying to prevent breakdowns. We’re trying to help people stay in front of any transportation issues so that they stay out of that death spiral,” Sanburn said.
With the next chapter for God’s Garage looming, the pastor said he’s looking forward to getting the new garage up and running and helping even more people.
“It makes a real true impact on people, and that’s kind of what keeps us going because we do see the impact. It’s not just a feel-good thing; it impacts people’s lives,” Sanburn said.
From June 2019 to July 2019, the period of time that was tracked for the grant application, God's Garage also donated five vehicles to people in need. God’s Garage accepts donated vehicles, and donors receive a statement they can use as a tax-deductible contribution. God’s Garage inspects and makes any repairs necessary so that the donated vehicles can be repurposed.
Volunteers with God’s Garage are hoping to open in their new location on March 30. Those who would like to volunteer are asked to call Smith at 765-490-9587.