Rides on the road to self-sufficiency
LIFESTYLE | A Texas nonprofit provides needy families with free, reliable transportation
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The Texas sun beats down on the small group gathered around a silver sedan in the parking lot of the Brazos County Tax Office. It’s a little after noon and already well over 90 degrees, but the oppressive heat doesn’t quell the celebratory atmosphere. Susana Ortiz, a 68-year-old woman wearing gray jeans, a maroon T-shirt, and a wide smile, is here to pick up her new car—new to her, that is.
A local family donated the 2009 Toyota Camry to OnRamp, a ministry that gives reliable used cars to families living in the seven counties of the Brazos Valley. Lack of transportation can paralyze a family otherwise doing its best to escape poverty. OnRamp steps into this need, helping clients while recognizing that a vehicle is only a tool: Reliable wheels can’t solve a client’s deeper need for community and accountability. That’s why OnRamp works with a community of ministries to pull a family out of the isolation that too often goes hand in hand with poverty.
Child Protective Services granted Ortiz custody of her 14- and 10-year-old grandchildren. Without a car, she relied on her landlord and others to get the kids to school and baseball practices. “If they called me to go and pick them up, I would have to go ask somebody to take me,” she said. “If not, they were there to stay.” The Camry opens a whole new world to Ortiz. She can drive herself to job interviews and visit her sister on the Gulf Coast.
Local churches and nonprofits nominate candidates for OnRamp, so its clients are already working with an advocate at another ministry. Staffers ask clients to complete a series of action steps such as meeting with a budget counselor and watching a video series on car maintenance and finances. Some clients who don’t stick to their goals don’t get a vehicle. Others realize they can’t afford to own a car right now.
“Sometimes we go through the application and interview, and we realize they have no family in town. And they also don’t have a support system outside of their advocate,” said Stephanie Mason, OnRamp’s operation director. In such cases, she said, OnRamp encourages clients to seek out community through churches, grief-sharing groups, or other local programs.
It was the director of Celebrate Recovery at Grace Bible Church who nominated Jamie Jeffers for OnRamp in 2021. The ink had barely dried on Jeffers’ divorce papers when her car’s transmission gave out. She couldn’t afford a repair bill or a monthly payment on another car, so friends drove her to and from work every day. Her two teenagers walked to school.
About six months later, OnRamp presented her with a 2011 Honda Element. She was grateful for the required maintenance lessons. “It’s a different sort of pride of ownership,” she said. “I know what to do. I know how to take care of this.”
When the car began having electrical problems, Jeffers took it to Christian Brothers Automotive, where OnRamp covered the costs for the first year. Those 12 months of complimentary maintenance allow OnRamp to build relationships with clients. Jeffers was diagnosed with cancer this year, and staffers still call to ask how they can pray.
OnRamp purchases about three-fourths of its vehicles, and families from local churches donate the rest. Staff and volunteers scour Texas markets, as well as dealerships in Colorado and New Mexico. They’ve narrowed the search to six reliable models—2008 and newer, with 150,000 miles or less. “Our goal is always to provide a vehicle that, Lord willing, can last five years reliably for that client,” said President Blake Jennings. That gives a family time to save for another car.
OnRamp’s operating costs have roughly doubled in the last five years. Pandemic shortages spiked the cost of used cars. Now a client costs at least $10,000, up from $5,000 when they served their first client in 2017. The number of clients they serve has also surged. This year, they will provide or maintain a vehicle for 84 families.
But Jennings said watching clients walk through difficult circumstances is more challenging than rising costs. “Vehicles, you just throw money at them, and you can fix them,” he said. “They’re easy. People are complex.” Successful clients are resilient because they stay connected to a community. They are goal-setters with “a strong drive to use the car as a tool to accomplish those things,” Jennings added.
Susana Ortiz was one of those clients. She drove her silver Camry straight to a restaurant she knew was hiring and got an interview before she drove the car home.
Before leaving the tax office parking lot, though, she laughed and pointed to a spot where the silver coat of paint had faded in the shape of a heart. It’s one of those aesthetic flaws that often characterize OnRamp’s cars, chosen for reliability, not a perfect coat of paint. But to Ortiz, it’s a symbol of love. She’s planning on picking out a heart-shaped magnet sticker with her granddaughter to cover the mark.
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