Sheree Brussa lost her house, car and most of her possessions in 2013 when a flood left much of her Des Plaines, Ill., community under water. The single mother didn’t know how she was going to get her young son, who has cerebral palsy, epilepsy and kidney problems, back and forth to the doctor and therapy.

Then Brussa received a lifeline from Trinity Lutheran Church’s Good News Garage. Through the program, members of the Des Plaines congregation who have mechanical talents volunteer to repair donated used vehicles that are then given to those in need.

Brussa received a 1992 Dodge Caravan from the Good News Garage. It enabled her to meet her son’s medical needs. She also was able to move to Iowa a few years ago, where her son recently received a kidney transplant and she is closer to family who help her out.

“It was one of the most horrible experiences in my life—the fear of not being able to get my son medical help,” she said. “[The van] was a blessing. It got us to where we needed to be.”

Trinity member Frank Hauser started the program five years ago after he read about the Good News Garage in New England, a community garage program launched 20 years ago in Vermont with financial support from Ascentria Care Alliance (formerly Lutheran Social Services of New England).

Hauser has worked in automobile service all his life, including 10 years as a mechanic at car dealerships. He approached George Schelter, pastor of Trinity, about launching a smaller scale operation at the church.

Schelter agreed and gave the program its first vehicle—the church’s 1982, 15-passenger Ford extended conversion van. “It hadn’t been used for quite some time,” Hauser said. “We took the whole summer to rehab the van.”

Work on the vehicles is done in an unheated, two-car garage on Trinity’s property. Hauser works on the vehicles in his spare time with the help of Trinity member and mechanic Kevin Lang, along with other volunteers. He and Lang are currently working on a 1999 Mercedes Benz C280.

The program has given away 10 vehicles. Some have gone to parishioners, but most recipients have been non-members.

The church van went to Linda Stancata, who operates an animal rescue and adoption organization, Wagging Hearts Rescue Inc., in Round Lake, Ill. The van’s passenger seats were removed to make room for the animals.

“We were ecstatic,” Stancata said. She had been spending $1,200 per month to rent smaller vans to travel to Kentucky twice every month to rescue animals slated to be euthanized and bring them to Illinois. Before receiving the larger van, the organization rescued about 800 animals per year. Now they rescue between 1,500 and 1,800 every year.

Help for the journey

Donated vehicles have come from church members, friends and a repair shop, Hauser said. Parishioners have also supported the Good News Garage financially, and Hauser has received donations and discounts from auto parts supply stores.

Hauser said donated vehicles typically need maintenance requiring new tires, brake work and air conditioning repairs. Vehicles that need extensive repairs are sold to the scrapyard and the money goes back to the program. The Good News Garage pays for the license plates and title transfer, provides a tank of gas and, when needed, one month of auto insurance.

Pedro Bunay received a 1997 Dodge truck from the Good News Garage. After the truck he owned died, he rented a U-Haul vehicle to get back and forth to roofing jobs that support his family. “This was a big help,” he said of his new truck. To thank Trinity members, he voluntarily cleaned and repaired the church’s gutters.

Hauser said it isn’t difficult to find people to give the vehicles to: “We save the vehicles, and God sends us people. We hardly ever have to look for someone to take a vehicle.”

He learned about Brussa’s and Stancata’s situations after reading articles about them in local newspapers.

“Sometimes people need a hand with transportation for whatever reason,” Hauser said. “They can’t afford transportation; something has gone wrong in their life. This is a hand up, not a handout. It’s a little help to get you going back on your way.”

Schelter and Lang think the program is a fulfilling way of responding to Jesus’ call to love our neighbor. Hauser hopes to expand the Good News Garage to include a training program for young people involving local repair shops.

“I have been blessed with more breaks in my life than I can number,” Hauser said. “It’s my turn to give back. It’s ‘God’s work. Our hands.’ the ELCA motto.”

Francine Knowles

Knowles is a freelance writer and former religion and business reporter with the Chicago Sun-Times.

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