Catholic Charities car ministry provides keys to a better life

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The frigid winter morning you dash to your SUV only to find the battery is dead; or the afternoon you're running late for your child's swim practice and see smoke billowing from your sedan's hood - these are the rare moments when many of us stop taking our cars for granted.

For most Northern Virginians, cars are the literal engines that propel their busy lives. But for those who don't have them, especially if they are low income, day-to-day obligations can be daunting.

"Having a car means being a reliable employee; it means the ability to go to the grocery store and bring home a reasonable amount of food instead of hauling bags onto multiple buses; it means getting to doctors' appointments and afterschool activities," said Sally O'Dwyer, director of volunteers for diocesan Catholic Charities. "Without a car, all of this is challenging."

To help connect low-income families with vehicles, the Catholic Charities car ministry was founded more than two decades ago by Father John O'Hara and longtime Catholic Charities employee Harry Burke.

The program accepts working cars, which it gives directly to those in need. It also recently began accepting nonrunning cars, whose parts are sold to pay for advertising and minor maintenance. All donated cars are tax deductible.

About 40 vehicles are donated each year, but demand exceeds supply.

"There is a huge need," said O'Dwyer, who oversees the volunteer-run ministry.

To be placed on the waiting list, an individual must fill out an application and meet eligibility requirements, which include a safe driving record, the ability to pay for maintenance and proof that the potential owner is low income.

Priority is given to working families with dependent children. The ministry also attempts to match cars with recent refugees and carless residents of St. Margaret of Cortona Transitional Residences in Woodbridge.

"We are trying to give cars where they are needed the most - to families struggling to get to doctors' appointments, school and work," O'Dwyer said.

One such family will receive a car this week.

Tanya and her husband have six children, one of whom has an undiagnosed tremor affecting most of her limbs. Once or twice a month for the past five years, Tanya has taken her daughter, now 17, to the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville and to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Her daughter's deficient immune system makes public transportation too dangerous, and without a car they've had to depend on others for help.

When Tanya found out her family would receive a car through Catholic Charities, she was overcome with emotion.

"I was in tears," she said. "People just don't understand how difficult it can be to not have a car. It's like a homeless person waiting for a breakthrough. I'm so grateful that now I don't have to depend on anyone else or be a burden."

Brian O'Connor, one of four car ministry volunteers, said there are countless inspiring stories like Tanya's.

A carless woman named Casablanca worked as on office cleaner, but because she had to rely on family and friends for transportation she only could work part time. Eventually unable to cover rent, she found herself homeless.

When O'Connor told Casablanca they had a car for her, she, like Tanya, burst into tears. She'd been offered a full-time job the week before, but couldn't accept it at the time because it required a vehicle.

Now Casablanca has a full-time position and is able to support herself.

This simple ministry, providing something so many of us take for granted, "is doing God's work," said O'Connor. "It is helping those most in need and really making a difference."

"It's a beautiful thing," added O'Dwyer, "to hand someone a set of keys and to know that their life will be transformed."

How to help

To donate a working or nonworking car, call Brian O'Connor at 703/841-3898 or send him an email.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015