ST. JOSEPH — In an effort to expand its reach, the New Heights Christian Community Development Association announced plans Tuesday to buy a new garage.

The garage would serve as the home of New Heights Auto Services, formerly known as First Church Cars Ministry. The program was created in 2009 to provide vehicles and mechanical repairs to financially struggling households in Berrien County.

The 7,000-square-foot building, formerly the site of Gary’s Gearhead Garage, is at 4367 M-139 in Royalton Township.

New Heights CCDA still needs to raise another $25,000 by July 26 to finalize purchase of the building. The nonprofit set a goal of $330,000 and raised the majority of the needed funding, along with matching grants, from the Whirlpool Foundation and the Berrien Community Foundation.

The First Church of God has helped about 120 families with transportation problems over the past decade through its Cars Ministry program. Two weeks ago, the program was turned into a standalone 501(c)3 nonprofit.

Chris Britton, executive director of New Heights CCDA, said the lack of transportation is one of the biggest barriers for individuals who live in the county.

“Without (transportation), many people struggle to gain, maintain or increase their employment,” Britton said. “New Heights Auto Services now has the opportunity to make a significant dent in the transportation issues facing our community.”

In 2018, the program helped 25 families.

In buying the property and the garage, Britton said the nonprofit plans to hire a full-time auto technician with the goal of providing transportation to 100 low-income families in the next year.

“We changed the name to better reflect our services,” Britton said. “As part of this expansion we’re not just going to be servicing the charitable class. We’re also going to be providing services to the general public.”

The general public will be able to get vehicle service by paying full price. By opening up repair service to the public, Britton hopes this will help fully sustain the program.

The program will still rely heavily on volunteer work.

Once the property is purchased, New Heights CCDA would stop work at the 1203 Pipestone Road shop in Benton Township. The program doesn’t own its current building, but leases its use.

Britton said they knew they would need to find a bigger space at some point based on the number of vehicles that are donated to the program. Despite opening up to the public and not doing work on a case-by-case business, Britton said he doesn’t consider New Heights Auto Services to be a business.

“It’s a still a program, but I would call it a social enterprise,” he said. “By adding a revenue-generating side, we will be able to increase the charitable side. Since the program’s inception, we have helped 120 people in 10 years. Now we want to do that in one year.”

The program currently has about 20 volunteers.

How it works

New Heights Auto Services was created to take donated vehicles, fix them up and sell them for $500 to individuals who need financial assistance, are seeking employment or are already employed.

They also provide mechanical repair service to low-income clients, plus the cost of parts.

When individuals donate cars to the ministry, they can receive a tax donation. Next, a team of volunteers, led by certified mechanics, work to repair the cars.

Applicants are approved to get a car by going through a one-on-one budget counseling session to confirm they have the means to purchase and maintain a car without putting their monthly expenses in jeopardy.

Sometimes the program will get cars that are not worth repairing or are not the right kind of car to provide to people who are under-resourced. These donated cars go to auction as “resource cars” to support the ministry’s mission.

Anyone with a vehicle or who would like to donate can contact First Church. To learn more, visit www.myfirstchurch.com/cars or call First Church at 269-983-1524.

Contact: twittkowski@TheHP.com, 932-0358, Twitter: @TonyWittkowski