Martin Schwartz is the kind of man who awakens at 2 a.m. with radiant ideas.
“Drives my staff crazy,” the Halethorpe, Md., resident said with a laugh during a recent conversation with the Salisbury Independent, but this brainstorm -- to train former inmates and others who need jobs to be mechanics and to form a non-profit organization that provides cars for those who can’t afford them, plus a repair garage where the public can save 20 percent – was worth waking for, way before daylight.
In 2015, Full Circle Auto Repair & Training Center was launched by Schwartz’s Vehicles for Change, headquartered in Halethorpe, as a paid internship program to train auto mechanics. On Nov. 3, a new Full Circle opened in Salisbury, at 31440 Winterplace Parkway, with a ribbon cutting and remarks by officials including Salisbury Mayor Jake Day.
“It was a very nice event. We had more than 60 people there,” Schwartz said, adding the repair garage is expected to open in about a year.
Those who have recently been released from prison, or graduated, will have the opportunity to be trained in the program that has proved successful. More than 200 paid interns have completed training and 100 percent of graduates found jobs and are earning an average annual starting salary of $34,000. Locally, about 30 mechanics will be trained in engine work, no body work, each year and be paid while being trained, earning $9 to $11.50 an hour depending on how well they are doing. Vehicles for Change is working with Eastern Shore Correctional Institute and the Wicomico County Detention Center.
“Our interns are graduating, making a living wage, buying homes, paying child support and spending time with their children again. Our employers state that our graduates are some of the best employees they have. They show up early, stay late, are willing to take on extra work and want to continue to learn,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz founded Vehicles for Change in 1999 in Halethorpe as “a car award program to meet the personal transportation needs of low-income families.”
The program has provided nearly 8,000 cars to families, allowing them to have access to higher-paying jobs. They are able to work overtime and have shorter commutes so they can spend more time with their families.
In 2016, Former Greater Salisbury Committee Executive Director Luis Luna was attending a Leadership Maryland tour in Halethorpe and heard Schwartz talking about his goal to expand.
“He said, ‘I know folks in Salisbury that would love to have this program’ and he connected me with Mike Dunn,” Schwartz said, referring to the CEO of the Greater Salisbury Committee.
Dunn said Luna was “impressed with the organization’s mission and operations.”
“We both knew Salisbury and our surrounding communities had a need for greater access to transportation as a workforce development tool. Cars give people access to jobs. That was the bottom line,” said Dunn, who then talked to Sandy Fitzgerald Angello, owner of Pohanka Automotive Group and member of the Greater Salisbury Committee, and they agreed the training program would help fill auto mechanic job openings.
“I was getting ready to start my own training program because we needed to grow our pool of mechanics here on the Shore,” Fitzgerald Angello said.
“The Vehicles for Change Full Circle training program is not only providing a solution for the private sector’s need for trained mechanics but also paving a path for citizens re-entering the workforce to secure meaningful jobs to provide for themselves and their families. This organization is truly an asset to our community,” she said.
“This is the only program like this in the country,” Schwartz said.
“Mainly it’s a training center. We work with those mostly coming out of prison and train them to be auto mechanics, get them jobs with Pohanka and other employers. We also accept donated cars and repair them, then we sell them. The people who buy cars pay $950. They get a 12-month loan so they can establish credit and a six-month, 6,000-mile warranty.” Schwartz said.
Loans are available through Vehicles for Change.
Vehicles for Change guarantees low-interest loans regardless of credit history, although applicants must live in Maryland or Northern Virginia, work at least 30 hours each week, have a driver’s license, be insurable, not have any extensive criminal background and be able to afford insurance, fuel and repairs. Applicants pay for taxes, tags and titles.
“Transportation has always been the No. 1 problem for people in poverty. And, there’s a serious problem with recidivism and people coming out of prison and being able to find training and jobs. In Maryland there is a training program in the prisons for auto mechanics,” Schwartz said.
“Many of the recipients that are part of the car award program are single moms with two to three children. The cars are giving them access to life. They can work, take their kids to school activities and sports programs, doctor’s appointments, and on vacations,” Schwartz said. When cars are donated, they are given to families in need, used for parts or sold to generate income for the organization.
Trainees wear headsets with screens they look into that provide a virtual experience, as though they are working in a garage, said Schwartz, who has been involved in athletics during his career “and always involved with programs that help people.”
“When I was coaching high school or college baseball, I was raising money for athletic scholarships for kids in need. I coached high school in Baltimore, at Catonsville Community College. I was an accountant at the high school, athletic director. I did fundraising for athletics,” said Schwartz, whose full-time job is now with Vehicles for Change.
Funding comes from the state of Maryland and the federal government.
The cost to train each Full Circle intern is $18,000. Funding to expand to Salisbury came from federal, state and local funds including grants from the Lower Shore Workforce Alliance and was awarded a Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act grant, American Rescue Plan Act grant and Employment Advancement Right Now grant. Pohanka is a local partner.
Vehicles for Change also has locations in Hyattsville and Baltimore City and there are plans to open 20 more in the next five years.
Anyone interested in applying for a car can email to firstname.lastname@example.org. For information about being trained or donating a car, call the Salisbury office at 443-449-3005.