COVINGTON, Ky. — Amanda Mills loved her 1991 Ford Taurus.
Her grandfather gave it to her several years ago, and the car was just what she needed to leave an abusive relationship.
“That was my baby, you know? It was there, like, through thick and thin,” said Mills, a mother of four boys who is now studying to become a nurse. “It was beaten up, but it got me to where I needed to go, and I was always so grateful every day to have a car.”
So Mills was devastated last summer when the car’s radiator blew on the side of the highway. Just weeks before the start of her nursing school clinicals, she had no way to get to the hands-on training she needed to keep her education on track.
Then a friend suggested Mills reach out to Bruce Kintner, the volunteer director of Samaritan Car Care Clinic. Four times each year, the clinic provides free oil changes and other routine car maintenance to low-income people in Northern Kentucky.
Mills knew Kintner from having the oil changed in her old Taurus. She called to explain what had happened, and Kintner got to work. He contacted a neighbor who had a friend who was preparing to sell a 2007 Lincoln MKZ. The man agreed to sell it for about half its resale value, and Mills came up with enough money to buy the car, have some basic repairs done on it and cover her insurance.
“What it means to me is freedom,” Mills said.
“It made me feel so valuable,” she said. “Like somebody believed in me, that somebody wanted me to succeed. And it really did change my life. I just feel empowered as a woman. As a single woman with children, I’m able to have adequate transportation to do the things that I need to do to be successful in life.”
That is the whole point of Samaritan Car Care Clinic.
“The mission,” Kintner said, “is to help people move on toward economic self-sufficiency.”
Now, he’s looking to expand the nonprofit and its reach. Kintner said he hopes to raise enough money to help more people with basic maintenance during the organization’s quarterly clinics. With enough support, Kintner said he would like to open a full-time not-for-profit mechanic shop to help with repairs that can throw low-income families into a tailspin.
When car breaks down, whole life breaks down
That’s exactly why Chinna Simon asked Kintner to launch the car care clinic back in 2007.
Simon is the senior minister of Madison Avenue Christian Church in Covington. The church has a long history of serving meals to the community on Mondays and Wednesdays -- providing dinner to nearly 18,000 people each year -- and Simon started to notice something.
“There are quite a few single mothers who live in this area,” he said. “And transportation is a big challenge for them because their car breaks down and their whole life breaks down.”
Simon knew that Kintner, an elder at the church, had an interest in cars.
As Kintner remembers it, Simon turned to him and said, “Bruce, you’re mechanical. Figure this out. What can we do?”
Kintner contacted David Brownfield and asked if the church could borrow Brownfield’s Walther Auto Body Service shop to provide free maintenance services. At the time, Kintner had no idea how it would work or whether it would be an ongoing service.
But the need hasn’t gone away, and Kintner and his team of volunteers quickly fill up 16 half-hour appointments for oil changes and basic maintenance every three months.
Shari Caldarelli has been volunteering with the clinic since she retired in 2015. She helps make all the appointments, makes calls to remind clients an hour before their appointments and then looks up the type of oil, windshield wipers and air filters that the various cars need.
“I have the ability to sit and visit with those clients,” she said. “They are all so appreciative, especially at Christmas time. It helps them to be able to buy a gift for their children. Others will say, 'if my car wasn’t running, I wouldn’t be able to make it to work.' Others say, 'I’m able to pay my cell phone bill.'”
Then there are the stories that stick with Tom Seeger, who has volunteered to help with car maintenance for more than eight years.
“There was a woman that had an abusive husband that kept beating on her, and she left,” Seeger said. “He found her wherever she moved to in Tennessee and beat on her some more. And she left, and they had nothing.”
The woman came to one clinic for help with her vehicle but never came back, he said.
“I’ve often wondered what happened to her,” Seeger said. “Did he find her again?”
'A brilliant concept'
Nonprofits throughout Northern Kentucky refer clients to Kintner.
Life Learning Center in Covington is located near Madison Avenue Christian Church and sees the clinic as an important way to help its clients with cars achieve self-sufficiency, said Alecia Webb-Edgington, the center’s president and CEO.
“Mr. (Bill) Butler, our founder, he says this all the time, and it’s so profound,” Webb-Edgington said. “There is so much dignity in working and being able to sustain yourself. The individuals we’re serving, they want to work, and there is dignity in that working. They’re not looking for a handout.”
For many working people throughout Greater Cincinnati and across the nation, a car can mean the difference between settling for a low-wage job and being able to drive to a job that pays more, said Margy Waller, a Cincinnati-based consultant who has researched and written extensively about what car ownership means to low-income people.
“I do believe in having a robust public transit system, and I support the moves that are being made locally and admire those who are promoting it,” she said. “That doesn’t change the reality that there will always be people who need a car to get a better job or take their kids to the park or get to the grocery.”
Many people who work in low-wage jobs buy a car as soon as they can, Waller said, and the cars they can afford typically need substantial repairs and maintenance.
Having a service like Samaritan Car Care Clinic – especially if it can grow into a full-time, nonprofit mechanical shop – “seems like kind of a brilliant concept,” Waller said.
St. Vincent de Paul – Northern Kentucky started referring clients to Samaritan Car Care Clinic a couple years ago after hearing that Kintner and his volunteers were doing some free or low-cost basic repairs for people who needed them, said executive director Karen Zengel.
But as Zengel has gotten to know Kintner and the clinic’s work, she said she has come to realize there’s an opportunity to work more closely.
St. Vincent de Paul collects car donations to help support its own work, she said, and most are sold at auction. Some of the vehicles, though, are in good enough shape to fix up and sell to families in need. For those, St. Vincent de Paul wants to refer the donated cars to Samaritan Car Care Clinic so they can be repaired and sold to low-income families after they are in good working order.
“We’ve actually already been able to make this happen for three families in just the last eight weeks,” Zengel said. “The impact is phenomenal. And if you can imagine – finding yourself looking for a job that provides enough income to be able to help you meet just your basic monthly obligations of food, shelter, energy within your home and knowing that it’s out there but not having the means to be able to get there – how frustrating that could be.”
For many families, buying a reliable car from a traditional car dealer makes it even more difficult to afford other monthly obligations, she said.
“What Bruce’s outreach and what Samaritan Car Care Clinic provides is this opportunity to take that step toward having that transportation that you need to get to the jobs that really do help you get to a sustainable way of life,” Zengel said. “It really is like a sigh of relief – a breath of fresh air.”
The certainty of a car that starts
Kintner has been working on other ways to help people who already have cars, too.
Last year, he offered a workshop to residents of Lincoln Grant Scholar House, where Mills and her sons live. Mia Potter, a resident who works for Northern Kentucky Community Action Commission, invited him.
“He went over all the things to look for,” said Potter, a mother of three who is pursuing her degree at Northern Kentucky University. “He brought us out to his car and showed us this is where you check your oil. This is where all of your fluids are.”
Potter said she knew that she and the other Scholar House parents could trust Kintner. The clinic helped keep her old 2013 Ford Windstar minivan running, she said. The van, named “Blue,” had almost 300,000 miles, Potter said, and had a long list of mechanical problems.
Then one day in 2019 when Potter was out driving with her kids, another vehicle rear-ended her.
“Everybody was safe, and it was a silent blessing because then I was able to get a new car,” she said.
Potter got the 2015 Toyota Camry she now drives, a much more reliable car that Kintner had checked out completely before she purchased it.
“It’s a good feeling to know that you’re going to get in your car, and it’s going to start,” Potter said. “There were several times with old Blue that I would get in and it wouldn’t start or you just never knew what was going to go on.”
That’s the kind of uncertainty that Kintner hopes Samaritan Car Care Clinic can eliminate for more people.
The nonprofit currently has far more demand than it can meet with its quarterly maintenance clinics and the occasional help it provides with repairs. At this point, Kintner has enough funding to keep the clinic going through the first quarter of this year, he said.
He's confident he will be able to find additional grant dollars to continue the nonprofit’s basic mission throughout 2021. And if he can find more supporters and foundations willing to donate to his larger vision, Kintner said the organization could help more people like Potter and Mills. He figures it would cost more than $200,000 per year to support the kind of nonprofit auto shop he envisions.
“We occasionally have to turn down people who it’s painfully apparent they are just simply looking for a handout,” Kintner said. “But if you’re trying to better yourself – you’ve got the job but now your clunker of a car has broken down – we want to support that single mom, that working dad to move along. I get a tremendous charge out of helping those people move along the path toward economic self-sufficiency.”
Getting there is rarely easy, but Mills said having a reliable car has made her journey much smoother.
One of the first things she did when she got her new car, in fact, was to drive her sons to a family beach vacation.
“I just feel so … like I mean something in this world. Like I established myself, and I’m going to go farther in the future to become what I want to be,” Mills said.
The car has seats that heat up and a touch-screen radio – features Mills has never had before.
“I feel like I’m being treated like a queen, you know. I deserve it. I’ve been working hard,” she said. “I’m just happy.”
Samaritan Car Care Clinic recently became an independent nonprofit organization but doesn’t have a website of its own. Additional information can be found on Madison Avenue Christian Church’s website. Donations can be made in the form of a check payable to Samaritan Car Care Clinic mailed to 1530 Madison Ave., Covington, Ky. 41011.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Poverty is an important focus for Lucy and for WCPO 9. reach Lucy, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.