Pathway Out of Poverty: The Lift Garage
Cathy Heying didn’t necessarily envision working as a mechanic. Armed with a bachelor’s degree in social work and a master’s degree in pastoral ministry, Heying spent years working at St. Stephen’s Catholic Church before she decided to launch The Lift Garage, her nonprofit car repair organization.
While at St. Stephen’s, she noticed a recurring pattern. Clients often came to the church in search of financial assistance for car repairs; whether they could ultimately pay for those repairs, she says, often determined the course of their lives.
“I kept seeing what a critical role that cars played in moving people forward out of poverty or sending people further into poverty,” says Heying, Lift’s executive director. “I just kept thinking about what it might look like if we were able to help.”
Heying laid the groundwork for The Lift Garage back in 2008, when she decided to go back to school for an associate degree in auto tech from Dunwoody College. After she earned her degree, she started working part time at a Sears auto center to gain hands-on experience in a garage.
In 2013, Heying formally launched The Lift Garage in Minneapolis. The nonprofit provides car repairs at a steep discount for low-income clients. “When the Lift opened, a handful of volunteers and I handled all the repairs,” Heying says. Today, Lift Garage employs 11 full-time and three part-time workers. It’s rarer these days, but Heying will still get out on the shop floor to help with repairs if staffing is short.
Lift charges $15 an hour for labor, then bills clients for parts at cost. Most garages, Heying notes, charge about $100 to $150 an hour for labor and then tack on a significant markup for the cost of parts. Since the cost of repairs is so low, Lift relies heavily on donations to balance its budget: Heying estimates that about 60% of the organization’s budget comes from individual donations. About 20 to 30% is from grants and foundations; the remainder is earned income from repairs.
Demand for Lift’s services has steadily grown. That’s partly why Heying is exploring a pilot program to offload some work to neighboring for-profit garages. Lift Garage would handle the usual customer screening process, but another garage would do the repairs, charging the same rates as Lift. “It’s become clear to me that it’s going to take a little more creative thinking,” Heying says. She envisions the program as a way to “share in the responsibility we have to meet the community’s needs.” Heying has hired a full-time staffer to oversee Lift Garage’s partnerships with neighboring garages.
Lift Garage is, of course, about much more than car repairs. Heying notes that part of the group’s mission is to treat every person with “high dignity.” That means providing coffee and snacks just as any other repair shop does. But that also means making quick pivots to help clients in need. In one case, the Lift Garage staff converted a conference room into a temporary child care center while a mother of four waited for repairs.
“In some ways, it had nothing to do with our mission of fixing cars, but it does have very much to do with our values,” Heying says. “We’re meeting people where they are and offering a lot of room for grace. We’re not pretending to be case managers trying to meet every need of the person in front of us, but sometimes there are really obvious needs that need to be met right away.”