Answered Prayers

Michigan dealership collaborates with church to provide cars and improve mobility
by Kristen Orsborn
July/August 2018
Answered Prayers
Improving Mobility
Signature Toyota General Manager Bill Crowder (left) and Dealer Principal Bill Reilly (right) in the Benton Harbor, Michigan, showroom. Reilly says serving customers and the community is core to his business.
Brooke Rodriguez was struggling.

As a single mother of two small children in Berrien County, Michigan, she was working hard to provide for her family. Without a car, finding a steady paycheck was tough. There aren’t many public transportation options in Berrien County, and the few choices she had weren’t convenient, with limited routes on a narrow schedule.

But where most saw a challenge, First Church of God and Signature Toyota saw a solution.

“At Signature Toyota, it is our core belief that we are here to serve our customers and our community however we can,” says Dealer Principal Bill Reilly.

Church leaders recognized the need for reliable, inexpensive transportation options for people like Rodriguez.

“Mobility is absolutely key to quality of life here,” says Chris Britton, missions director. “We just don’t have a lot of reliable ways to get from point A to point B. If people are going to be on time for a job or appointment, they have to schedule transportation an hour early. If your life is already difficult, this makes it that much harder. It’s expensive, too. If you’re making minimum wage, taking public transportation really puts a dent in your paycheck.”

The church was in a unique position to help. After hearing about a Chicago-area ministry providing low-cost cars to people in need, organizers there got to work building a similar program of their own.

The result: New Heights Cars Ministry. The program takes donated cars, inspects them to make sure they’re road-worthy, and sells them at a small fee. The cars are usually valued around $2,000, but are sold at cost. Usually, the price is no more than $500. The team at Signature Toyota handles paperwork, licensing, title work and sales tax.

Answered Prayer Brooke Rodriguez worked with the New Heights Cars Ministry and Signature Toyota to purchase a car.

“It’s a simple transaction,” says Bill Crowder, general manager of Signature Toyota. “We don’t have any cost beyond the labor, documents and time. But what it does for the consumer is pretty remarkable. They feel so good about getting a car. We’ve enabled them to feel like they’re part of this community.”

The requirements are simple: applicants must be 21 or older and live in Berrien County. Typically, they don’t have a car. If they do, it’s not reliable or isn’t worth fixing. The program began in 2009, and has grown every year. In 2017, they helped 17 people get vehicles. This year, they’re on track to help 25.

“We don’t do that many cars a year, so it’s not high volume,” Crowder says. “But it’s highly impactful to the 25 people who receive these cars. We give them the same treatment as any other customer who comes in off the street.”

For Britton, Signature Toyota’s involvement goes far beyond the paperwork. It’s central to his mission of expanding mobility and instilling a sense of dignity.

“That’s the best thing Signature does with this project,” Britton says. “Employees there come out and greet our applicants like they’re paying customers. It adds this whole layer of pride for a person who was in need of help. Crowder and his team have the utmost integrity, and we wouldn’t be where we are today without them.”

Britton is hopeful he can keep expanding the project to reach more people like Rodriguez. And Crowder says Signature Toyota will be there, ready to help more people like Rodriguez get back on their feet.  

“This is a great program and it’s the right thing to do,” Crowder says. “We just want to help however we can. But we’ve also found that it comes full circle. These people get a car from the program, start getting steady paychecks, and often end up eventually trading that car in to buy something else. That’s wonderful to see, and to be a part of that transformation. That’s the ultimate reward.”  
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