Program finances inexpensive vehicles to employed people on welfare

Posted Feb. 19, 2010, at 6:44 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Nicole Roberts knows by heart the schedule of the city bus that travels by her Bangor apartment — after riding it for years to buy groceries and get to work — even though she no longer has to use it.

Roberts, 36, a working single mother of two, recently got keys to a “new to her” 2001 Ford Taurus SE station wagon through the Good Wheels to Work program, and she hasn’t ridden the city bus since.

“This is one of the many rewards I get for my hard work,” she said Wednesday.

Because she is working and on welfare, Roberts qualified for a low-interest loan for a car through Good Wheels, a statewide program that was rolled out a decade ago as a partnership of the state’s Department of Human Services, Goodwill of Northern New England, KeyBank of Maine and the Maine Automobile Dealers Association.

Roberts is a customer representative associate for DHHS, and even with her wages still qualifies for food stamps and MaineCare health insurance. She is in the Aspire Program and has been working steadily since 2007, but hasn’t had a car since 2005.

The day she got the keys to her station wagon changed her life, and that of her two children, Sydney Yakubu, 11, and Alex Yakubu, 10.

“Words can’t explain” how good it feels “when you accomplish your goals,” she said. “It’s unexplainable.”

In the four-prong partnership, DHHS helps to identify qualified applicants, Goodwill Industries collects donated vehicles and works with the automobile dealers association to refurbish them, and KeyBank serves as the lending agency. Goodwill also provides the administrative duties for the Good Wheels program, which also can provide help with vehicle repairs.

All Good Wheel loans are for less than $5,000, and monthly car payments are usually between $100 and $200 and must be paid off in three years.

Roberts pays $123 a month for her $4,000 Taurus.

“It’s low enough that you can afford it,” she said. “To me, that’s reasonable.”

The lack of reliable transportation is one of the barriers that stands in the way of people trying to get off welfare, the Goodwill Web site states.

“Each eligible participant meets with a Goodwill transportation specialist to review transportation needs and options including the type of car to purchase and a budget plan,” it states. “The transportation specialists then assist with loan applications, vehicle selection, insurance purchases, and vehicle registration. The final step is to put together a maintenance schedule to help keep the new car running smoothly.”

People who donate cars, vans or trucks to Goodwill get a tax deduction for their donation. The vehicles are repaired, and the costs are rolled into the low-interest loan.

Michelle Smith, community coordinator for Goodwill, said applicants are screened through the Aspire Program, which is designed to help food stamp recipients find employment. With the loan and budgeting training, most are successful in paying off the car loans, she said.

“In the 10 years Good Wheels has been around, we’ve sold 1,236 vehicles,” Smith said. The default rate on the loans is 4.33 percent.”

That means in the last decade, only around 54 people have failed to keep their cars for lack of payment.

“It’s a big step for a lot of people and a big commitment,” Smith said. “It’s been a really great program for us.”

Roberts said her life has been “a long, hard road” but her determination to better her life for her family has kept her going, and the bumps nowadays are a little easier to manage, thanks in part because she has a vehicle to get around.

“The Good Wheels program is a very good project,” she said. “I’m very happy with it.”

And she feels a sense of accomplishment every time she gets into her car.

“I work for it,” she said.

The first trip Roberts took in her car was off her typical beaten path.

“I took my family out to dinner … [at a restaurant] off the bus route,” she said.

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