Driving Change

Terp’s Car Donation Program Turns 20
by Annie Dankelson | Schwartz photo by Stephanie S. Cordle; Auto images courtesy of Manufacturers

A 1986 Ford Escort station wagon can change someone’s life. Just ask Marty Schwartz ’77.

Eighteen years ago, his nonprofit, Vehicles for Change, awarded that car to Lisa Phillips, allowing the single mother of three to get from Woodlawn, Md., to a new job at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Instead of waiting on public transportation to get to the pharmacy or laundromat or to get her kids to and from school, she had time to pursue a degree, earning a dual MBA before starting her own workforce training business.

“I drove it until the wheels came off,” Phillips says of the car. “It was this domino effect. I just started knocking things out.”

Schwartz has watched thousands drive toward better lives since he founded Vehicles for Change 20 years ago in April. The nonprofit, which repairs donated cars from the public and awards them at a deep discount to low-income families, has given more than 6,200 vehicles.

“The impact that it has on our families is off the charts,” Schwartz says.

He showed sparks of entrepreneurial spirit as a middle schooler, creating a newspaper delivery business in his Catonsville, Md., neighborhood. At UMD, he worked maintenance in the residence halls while taking a variety of classes, eventually deciding on an accounting major.

But his first job out of college as an auditor was “absolutely the worst,” Schwartz says. He then bounced around, getting involved in coaching soccer, baseball and lacrosse and as a fundraiser in the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s athletic department before eventually answering a want ad from Cars for Careers, a Howard County program seeking an executive director.

At an automotive show, an auto parts dealer from Precision Certipro asked Schwartz if he’d be interested in expanding the car awarding idea, and with a $20,000 grant, a $10,000 loan and the backing of a larger company, Vehicles for Change was born.

“I always tell people, whatever you believe in for a supreme being or whatever,” Schwartz says, “this is where I’m supposed to be, and this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Besides helping eligible car recipients—many of them from job readiness programs, domestic violence shelters or rehabilitation centers—get better jobs and shrink their commutes, Vehicles for Change has grown to include Freedom Wheels, a retail used-car lot whose proceeds fund repairs to vehicles for awarding, and Full Circle Auto Repair & Training Center, which prepares former inmates for technician jobs. It’s expanded in the DMV area and to Detroit, and Schwartz hopes to continue adding locations.

“He’s got that coach mentality,” Sean Howard, who started with Full Circle last June, says of Schwartz. “He’s the one that comes in and builds that morale up.”


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