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Ex-Offenders Work for Organization that Repairs and Sells Vehicles at Low Cost

by Douglas Ankney

In 1999, Marty Schwartz started Vehicles for Change (VFC) – a nonprofit that repairs donated vehicles and sells them to low-income families for $700 to $850. The charity provides reliable vehicles to solve “the No. 1 barrier for employment for low-income residents – which is [lack of] transportation,” according to Schwartz’s group.

But finding workers trained in automotive repair was a challenge. To solve the need for skilled mechanics, VFC came up with the idea for “Full Circle” in 2002. The goal was to have a program for ex-offenders to help bridge the gap to employment after their release from prison.

“They screwed up; they know they screwed up,” Schwartz said. “They want to fix it. They are sincere, they are incredible and they work hard.”

Sean Howard was released in February 2019 after serving 21 years. While behind bars, he acquired an education and job skills, including a passion for auto repair in a prison shop class. Instructors recognized his exemplary attitude and work ethic, and recommended him for enrollment in VFC’s school located just outside Baltimore, where the donated vehicles are repaired. There is also a VFC program in Detroit, and Schwartz is hoping to expand elsewhere.

At the 33,000-square-foot VFC site, Howard and other workers get paid while earning their Class B automotive technician certification. After four months of training, the men and women graduate and are placed in high-demand jobs with car dealerships and auto repair shops. The pay averages around $60,000 annually after three years.

“We’re not just a jobs program,” Schwartz said. “This is a career opportunity. We have two guys making over $100,000 a year.”

To get into the VFC program, Howard had to pass the “Nikki Test” – an interview with Nikki Zaahir, director of VFC’s Automotive Reentry Internship Program. “I look for the three A’s,” Zaahir said. “Attitude, aptitude, and attendance. I also want to see if they can articulate their dreams, have a vision of where they want to go. Or if they are just trying to get in to pass their time.”

Her evaluations are so accurate that of the 109 ex-offenders accepted into the program since 2015, only one has returned to prison. 

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Sources: washingtonpost.com, baltimoresun.com, vehiclesforchange.org