The White Earth Indian Nation is a block of land in northwest Minnesota about 30 miles long and 30 miles wide. It's just a little smaller than the state of Rhode Island.
The landscape is dotted with lakes, forests and a handful of small towns. Because the towns are isolated, there are no quick trips on the White Earth Nation.
Audra Highelk grew up and lives here. She says if you don't have a dependable car, your options are limited. You either get a ride with a friend or relative, or you walk. There are no commuter transportation systems here.
"Work for us is probably 30 miles at the least for a lot of people, maybe an hour drive," says Highelk. "So, it's a fairly long commute to and from work every day."
Highelk is a loan officer with the Jump Start program, which helps low-income people buy cars. The White Earth Nation and the Midwest Minnesota Community Development Corp. are partners in the program. The idea is to help 30 low-income people get a down payment for a car.
Tom Klyve is CEO of the White Earth Investment Initiative, which manages the program. Klyve says there are no tax dollars supporting the program. Instead, the Bremer Foundation gave $45,000 for the down payments.
"What Jump Start does, it's an automobile program. People have to meet a lot of requirements to be involved in the program," says Klyve. "First they have to have a job, and then they need a vehicle to get to and from their job."
The Jump Start program doesn't give cars away, it's a way to get the money for a down payment. If you qualify, you have to pay for car insurance, you also have to put $10 a month into a savings account designated for auto repairs.
The vehicles are newer models, but nothing fancy. They are four-door cars with four-cylinder engines. The idea is get people who want to work dependable cars.
Shannon Patterson is in the Jump Start program. The mother of three works in the Family Services Department for the White Earth Nation. Patterson says it may be hard for some people to comprehend, but having no car to drive to work is a major barrier for someone trying to break out of the cycle of poverty.
"They're homeless because they lost their job and they couldn't get back and forth to work," says Patterson. "They couldn't get their kids to day care. It is the No. 1 barrier up here."
Patterson says one of the best parts about the program is that it teaches people how to manage their credit, and holds them accountable for their loans.
"Because a lot of people you work with around here don't have that general idea of budgeting or responsibility," says Patterson. "They don't know how important that is to keep your credit stable, because you're going to need it."
Patterson says to qualify for the program, you have to have a job. A caseworker reviews each application, to make sure the client can afford the loan. Then they work with the person to make sure they make payments on time. Loan officer Audra Highelk says the approach is working.
"We have a very high success rate. We don't have any delinquencies right now, we don't have any repossessions. A lot of people get their payments in on time," says Highelk.
Highelk says over the last two years the Jump Start program has made 30 car loans. Each loan has played an important role in rebuilding a person's self-esteem.
She hopes people who benefit from the program use it as a stepping stone to other things, such as owning a home or starting a business.