Social worker tries auto repair to tackle poverty

Lift Garage founder Cathy Heying discusses a problem with a technician
Lift Garage founder Cathy Heying discusses a problem with technician Joel Epstein inside the shop in Minneapolis on Tuesday, April 10, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

There's not a lot of overlap in the skills of social workers and car mechanics, but that didn't stop one Twin Cities social worker from opening an auto repair garage. Cathy Heying launched her new career five years ago Friday — not only to fix vehicles, but to combat poverty. And the business is succeeding at its mission and as a business.

On a recent day Heying and another mechanic were trying to diagnose the problem with a late model Dodge Grand Caravan that's prone to overheating.

Heying dons a pair of goggles, and with a mechanic flashlight in hand, inspects the minivan's engine.

Despite spending 10 years as a social worker and pastoral minister, Heying is clearly in her element under the hood.

Repair tools sit on a table inside Lift Garage.
An inspection checklist, impact wrench and rags sit on a table inside the Lift Garage in Minneapolis on Tuesday, April 10, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The Lift Garage has been her ministry for the last five years. She charges a third what commercial auto shops do. But she only serves people whose income falls below the federal poverty level. Heying said her labor charges are $15 an hour instead of the $90 to $130 at market-rate shops.

In her practice as a social worker, she said car repair was a common need among her clients.

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"Often it was, 'I need help paying for this car repair because I have to get to my work,'" Heying said. "'If I can't get this car fixed I won't be able to get there and if I can't get there, I'll lose my job. Then I can't pay rent then we'll end up on the streets.'"

Heying said faith-based and social service programs couldn't do much to stop those dominoes from falling.

Ten years ago, she decided to try to fill the gap. With a master's degree already on her wall, she enrolled in an auto technology program. On April 13, 2013, she opened her repair shop and named it The Lift Garage.

Auto technician John Buttner inspects a car inside Lift Garage.
Auto technician John Buttner inspects a car from underneath inside the Lift Garage in Minneapolis on Tuesday, April 10, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"It's both literal — we are lifting cars up in the shop on lifts — but it's also metaphorical in that our hope always is to lift people's lives up into safety and security and out of poverty," she said. "When [the idea] came to me, I was like, 'This is perfect because its both/and.'"

The Lift began with one repair bay, and was open one day a week. Today, it operates five days a week with four bays. Revenue has grown steadily, and the business generates a surplus.

Over five years Heying said the shop has served more than 1,000 customers and saved them $825,000 on auto repair costs.

Customer Norma Hungley brought her car in recently for a new serpentine belt. She said the garage's low prices make the replacement possible.

"I was lucky to find this because car costs are so big and it's so much less here so you can actually afford to get your car fixed," Hungley said.

The Lift Garage van sits in the parking lot in Minneapolis.
The Lift Garage van sits in the parking lot in Minneapolis on Wednesday, April 11, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Heying can keep her fees low because the garage is a non-profit, funded largely by charitable contributions. In 2015, she was named a CNN Hero, which has helped keep donations coming.

But the current success didn't come easily.

Heying was 38 when she enrolled in the auto technology program and eventually was the only woman in a class of 18-year-old males. After just one quarter she wanted to drop out.

"I'm a social worker, pastoral minister, by training, so it's kind of like, 'Can't we just talk about how the cars are feeling?" she laughed. "This is science and math and engineering, and the stuff doesn't come naturally to me, so I have to work extra hard at it."

But Heying's instructor convinced her not to drop out and has been a Lift board member since it opened.

Lift Garage founder Cathy Heying laughs while telling a story
Lift Garage founder Cathy Heying laughs while telling a story about a past customer as JoHanna Smrcina, left, and Diana Campos, right, work in the back office of the Minneapolis shop on Wednesday, April 11, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Among the many snags involved in getting the business started, insurance was the biggest.

"Thirteen times we got rejected before somebody finally took us on," Heying said. "It was low coverage and high costs but it was enough to get the doors open."

Demand for the low-cost service has been constant from day one. And now there's a three-month wait for service.

"That's the part that gets discouraging to me," Heying said. "I feel like we're not actively dismantling a system of poverty if we can't get people's needs met in a timely fashion."

But the Lift Garage will soon be able to serve more people. The business is moving to a bigger location in the fall.

And former customer Marybeth Luing said she's proof that Lift is making an impact. She was able to parlay a car repair into a job. Luing calls Heying a "shero."

"Instead of bemoaning that the services available had a huge nasty gap, in safety net around transportation, she did a pretty amazing thing."