Inspiration often comes at strange times, and those who are truly inspired can almost always pinpoint the exact moment that changed their lives forever. For longtime Gig Harbor resident and auto-shop owner Howard Mackert, that moment was when he heard that someone he reached out to help had ended up back in jail. “It broke my heart,” said Howard. “If only she had a dependable car she would be out and still improving her life.”

Howard’s story begins at a Friday morning rotary club meeting, something he’s been going to for more than a decade. One of the group’s trademark programs was created by Buck Frymier, who wanted to do something to help reduce the 70 percent of women who end up back in prison at Purdy after their initial arrest. Frymier and other volunteers teach women currently in the corrections center on resume building, interview etiquette, how to explain to potential employers about their incarceration and other skills to better their chances of landing a job once released. At this particular meeting, it was brought to Howard’s attention that a local woman found employment but did not have reliable transportation.

“I had just gotten my wife a newer 4Runner, and her old Blazer with 272,000 miles on it had become my shop vehicle. I figured this young woman could borrow it as I really didn’t need it around,” said Howard. The Blazer got the young woman to work several times, but one morning it wouldn’t start and her roommate was unable to drive her. The roommate found a ride for her but during that trip the driver decided to do a drug deal and they were busted. A judge didn’t believe the young woman’s story that she was just trying to get to work and she was sent back to Purdy for another 18 months, away from her 2-year-old daughter. “A vehicle is really a basic necessity here, and you can’t get a job without a car and can’t get a car without a job,” said Howard.

His mind started turning, and when he came across a program a friend in Denver came up with in which many donated cars were given to new mothers at a pregnancy clinic, he thought to himself, ‘Hey, I can do that here.’ The idea of Cars for Change was born, and today the organization is just a few small steps away from becoming a reality. Cars for Change is a program in which Howard, along with other local volunteers and shop owners Brian Smith of Gig Harbor Auto Service and Brian Reid of Parker’s Service, will be providing good, clean running vehicles to women in need of reliable transportation. These include recently released inmates looking for employment, single mothers, widows or even women who might be buried in medical bills and might not be able to get to necessary medical appointments.

When Howard approached his rotary friends about turning the idea into a fully fledged 501c3 nonprofit, the group was impressed and generously donated $2,000 to help cover much of the cost of creation. Local attorney Paul Alvestad is also volunteering his time to put the necessary paperwork together. Three vehicles have already been donated to the cause including a Dodge pickup and a Lexus SUV. Howard will be selling these donated vehicles so he can purchase low-maintenance and reliable four-door family cars like Toyota Camrys and Corollas.

Though not fully formed yet, Howard can already see the community ready to embrace his idea. “Just about every time I share it with the community, someone comes up to me and tells me they have a car they can donate or that their company will match cash donations. It’s been really neat.”

Cars for Change will be putting together and donating vehicles on a quarterly basis. Shop owners and volunteers will come together on specified days and tune up the automobiles so they are all ready to go at once. There will be ample opportunities in the future for community members to take part, and Howard hopes to also partner with local high schools so teens interested in learning mechanic work can get hands-on experience while also benefiting those less fortunate in their communities. A five-person board is already formed, and Cars for Change hopes to get around 30 cars out into the community in the first year. The program is getting help in vetting individuals in need from local churches and established organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club and various shelters throughout the South Sound.

Maintaining a used vehicle is vital to keeping it running efficiently, and the organization will continue to do so even after the vehicle is donated. Quarterly oil changes will be provided at no charge. “I’d rather donate an oil change and keep the car running smoothly than be rebuilding the engine or looking for new transmissions,” said Howard. Vehicle owners will be responsible for fuel and liability insurance costs, and the group hopes to have the first donated vehicles hit the road by this fall. Those who choose to donate a vehicle will receive a tax benefit for doing so, giving even more incentive for the community to participate. Donations will need to be running and in good order so they can either be tuned up with no major overhauls or resold so Cars for Change can purchase additional reliable cars. Interested donors can get in contact with the organization through its temporary email address, cars4change1@gmail.com. A website and additional contact information is currently being formed.

With 16 years of trust built up at his shop Mackert Automotive, Howard feels he’s landed in a perfect time to really get the organization off and running. “It feels like the perfect storm. My business runs itself, I now have the time to commit to this, I have connections in the community and the wherewithal to make it happen,” he said. “It feels really good to help somebody, and honestly, I’ll probably get more satisfaction out of it than they [the recipients] will.”

For those looking to turn their lives around, return to employment and provide a better upbringing for their family, a reliable vehicle is paramount to their success. Cars for Change is dedicated to getting these reliable vehicles into the hands of deserving women and ultimately improving lives and an already incredible community.

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