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By Christina Rexrode | St. Petersburg Times | March 25, 2007

Here's a key to stability

Imagine having a job and a family, but no vehicle. Could you get from Point A to B, C and D and keep your commitments? That's where Wheels of Success comes in.

Sometimes getting a job is only half the battle. Getting to the job can be a whole different challenge. That's what Susan Jacobs realized several years ago when she was running a staffing agency that specialized in low-skill hospitality jobs. Many of her workers didn't have cars and she'd end up driving them to temp jobs on the weekends.

In 2003 Jacobs founded Wheels of Success with a two-car donation and a vision to help the working poor keep their jobs without having to walk to work. Last month, her Tampa nonprofit was recognized by the Points of Light Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Wheels has helped 130 families in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties. Almost 100 of those families received vehicles; the rest got financial help with car repairs, down payments or insurance.

The problem that Jacobs is tackling is especially poignant in the Tampa Bay area, where walking to work is usually out of the question and public transportation is intermittent.

Without Wheels, said Christina Trude, she'd be asking her grandmother to chauffeur her and her two children.

Trude, 27, an office manager in Tampa, lost her car during a marital separation. Jacobs' organization found a 1993 Mercury Voyager for her.

"I really needed it really badly," Trude said.

Wheels of Success is aimed at workers who earn too much to qualify for government transportation programs but struggle to make ends meet.

"If you're working two jobs, trying to feed your kids and the transmission goes out on your car, you don't have $1,500 to fix it," Jacobs said.

This isn't a free lunch, Jacobs, 57, notes. Recipients must make monthly payments for their vehicles based on their income. They must work full time, and they must be referred by a social services agency, a church or their employer. The vehicles they get aren't meant to last 10 years - just long enough for them to get back on their feet.

That was exactly the kind of help that Linda Bolling needed.

In 2005 she was a successful real estate agent. Then, in one year, her father died, she separated from her husband and the housing market tanked.

She fell behind on her van payments.

"I woke up on Jan. 15, and my van was gone," said Bolling, 30, of New Port Richey. "I had been trying to make up the back payments, and I didn't expect them to come and take it anyway, but that's the way it works."

She rented a car for a week to get to her job at Orange Street Lending in Tarpon Springs. But that set her back almost $160, so she checked the bus schedule. It wasn't encouraging.

"I would have had to leave the house at 6:15 in the morning just to get to work at 8:30," Bolling said. And she couldn't imagine how she would get her three children to school and other activities.

On Jan. 25, Wheels of Success gave her the title to a 1995 Nissan Quest.

"They saved me," Bolling said.

As Wheels chugs toward its fourth birthday, Jacobs plans to tweak her business strategy. She'd prefer clients come to her before they lose their cars so she can help them work with a lender. And she'd like to pursue more partnerships with companies that have workers who are promising but don't have reliable transportation.

"Employers obviously can't write their employees a check for a car," Jacobs said, "but they can (help them) through Wheels of Success."

Bolling hopes she can give back to the organization that helped her so much.

"When life recovers," she said, she'll give her van back to Wheels and hope that another family will benefit as hers did.

Christina Rexrode can be reached at crexrode@sptimes.com or (727)8938318.

"Employers obviously can't write their employees a check for a car, but they can (help them) through Wheels of Success."

Susan Jacobs, Wheels of Success founder, discussing ways she imagines the organization can help clients before they lose their transportation

FAST FACTS

Chunk of change for transportation
The average Tampa family devotes 19 percent of its expenditures, or $6,855 per year, to transportation. Of that, $217 goes toward public transportation each year, according to 2004 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The bureau stopped tracking Tampa for its consumer expenditure surveys in 2005.

Get involved
Wheels of Success will put on its inaugural RACE Luncheon and Hub Cap Awards from 11:30 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. April 27 at the Quorum Westshore Hotel in Tampa, and it's selling tickets and corporate sponsorships. Call (813)417-1090 or visit www.wheelsofsuccess.org for details. Also, call or visit the site for information about volunteering to answer phones, help at events and more.

 
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