Vehicles for Change gifted auto repair business

Editor’s note: The following article appeared on www.baltimoresun.com on January 10, 2017.

By Jeff Barker

Vehicles for Change, a pioneering Maryland nonprofit, has received foundation grants and corporate sponsorships, but no gift ever looked quite like this: a fully functioning auto repair business.

Jerry Greeff’s unusual donation of his One Stop Auto Repair garage came with a request to keep alive the $2.5 million-a-year business that he has operated in Waverly with his wife, Pam, since 1991.

At 64, Greeff said his wife encouraged him to leave behind his taxing 12-hour days at the shop and concentrate instead on the family’s commercial real estate business.

“My wife said it was either her or the business,” Greeff said.

The shop — on the site of the old Talbott Motors Co. that later became a Ford dealership on Greenmount Avenue — was transferred right after Christmas to the nonprofit, which fixes donated cars and awards them to low-income families at minimal cost.

All that was missing was a giant red bow.

Martin Schwartz, the organization’s president, said he was happy to oblige Greeff’s request. Not only will the 18-year-old nonprofit keep the shop — with its familiar red-brick storefront and 17 lifts — open, it will use the property as an extension of its reentry program in Halethorpe, in which dozens of ex-prisoners are trained to become auto mechanics.

“It’s highly unusual to receive an ongoing business,” Schwartz said. He plans to retain the shop’s three technicians and two other employees, and to honor existing warranties to customers.

“He is donating the business and all the equipment inside. Jerry has a huge heart. He calls five times a day with ideas of how we can better serve the community.”

Under the arrangement, Greeff still owns the building. Vehicles for Change, which has an annual budget of about $4 million, is leasing the space with an option to buy.

The shop, filled with shelves of batteries and old parts, has a musty charm.

But security is an issue. The garage has extensive video surveillance and retains a former Baltimore police officer part-time to keep an eye on the property.

“We take security very, very seriously,” Greeff said. “We’ve been held up one time and that was 24 years ago. The man that was held up is still with me.”

The garage is in the sort of economically challenged neighborhood, Schwartz said, that demonstrates the need for affordable cars.

“Even in regions with a strong transit system, many low-income families have trouble reaching jobs for which they’re qualified,” Vehicles for Change says on its website. “Some are forced to turn down good positions in favor of lower paying ones with transit access. A car gives them access to better job opportunities and the flexibility to work extra shifts or overtime.”

The Brookings Institute estimated in 2011 that more than 6,000 households in the Baltimore region lack either a car or access to mass transit services to get to a job.

Vehicles for Change has awarded more than 5,000 cars in in Maryland, Virginia and Michigan, where it started a car donation program in 2015. The nonprofit sells cars to low-income buyers for an average of $900 with a 12-month loan and a six-month warranty.

Greeff, a self-described Type A personality who works weekdays and most Saturdays, considered selling the business last year, but said he couldn’t find a buyer with enough capital.

He said it will be easier now to step aside knowing his shop is going to support a worthy cause. He is helping guide the transition by remaining at the garage for the first few months of the year.

Most of his life, Greeff said, has been focused on “business and family.” He has been married 41 years and has three children.

“I’ve been very successful because I have been focused — two-dimensional. I have not been as active in the community as I perhaps should have been, could have been,” he said.

Vehicles for Change plans to use the garage as a starter program for its automotive training program for former inmates.

“Ninety-five percent of them have come directly out of prisons to us,” Schwartz said. “We go into the prison system quarterly and we identify those guys that are ready to come out and are recommended.”

The 18-month-old training program, based on Washington Boulevard in Halethorpe, has placed 30 graduates into jobs. Another 14 are still in training, working 40 hours per week and receiving $8.50 an hour.

“Some guys who graduated are in Clarksville at Eyre Bus, two guys are in body work in Bel Air, we’ve got some guys at Antwerpen (dealerships) and at Mile One,” Schwartz said. One graduate, he said, got involved in drugs and is back in prison.

Eduard Baxter, 29, was released from prison in March after serving three years in a theft case. He said the training program “was like a jump start for my life, the way you jump start a car.”

His automotive training, first in prison and then at the nonprofit, “gave my a lifestyle I thought I would never get,” Baxter said. “I had plenty of jobs — at McDonald’s, at Taco Bell. I just couldn’t keep them.”

Baxter completed his training last year and now works at a Mazda dealership in Pasadena.

“He just wanted to learn as much as he could,” Schwartz said. “At night he was delivering pizzas.”

Greeff said the training program not only fills a need for ex-prisoners, but for the business he has devoted his life to.

“There is definitely a shortage of qualified people in almost every aspect of this industry,” he said. “There is an opportunity here for trained people.”

Source: The Baltimore Sun

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