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Woman gives low-income workers 'Wheels of Success'

  • Story Highlights
  • Susan Jacobs created Wheels of Success to help low-income workers get cars
  • The organization gives donated, refurbished vehicles to qualified applicants
  • Lack of transportation often gets in the way of people making a living, Jacobs says
  • The top 10 CNN Heroes will be announced on October 1
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TAMPA BAY, Florida (CNN) -- Judging by her proud expression as she left the parking lot in her 1991 Honda Accord for the first time, Jessica Ostrofsky could have been driving a brand new sports car.

Jessica Ostrofsky, left, got a 1991 Honda Accord thanks to Jacobs, right.

Susan Jacobs' Wheels of Success program helps low-income workers get their own cars.

"I'm so happy," she said with a laugh. "Having this [car] is going to change my life drastically because it's going to make me totally independent."

Ostrofsky, 31, a single mother of three, had been leaving her house before dawn -- toting a stroller, car seat, diaper bag and purse -- to catch a bus. She would go first to her children's baby sitter and then to work. The trip took up to three hours.

But on Labor Day, the St. Petersburg, Florida, resident and 19 others received their own cars, thanks to Susan Jacobs' Wheels of Success program.

Since 2003, Wheels of Success has refurbished 280 donated cars for low-income individuals and families and helped another 280 clients with vehicle-related services.

"Receiving ... the car is more than just the car," said Jacobs. "People literally see how it's going to change their life" by knocking down an obstacle that had gotten in their way due to lack of transportation.

Jacobs would know. The 59-year-old Tampa resident lost access to reliable transportation more than a decade ago when she ended a relationship and left her car behind. While staying with a friend who lived far from a bus line and across town from Jacobs' evening job, she had to hitch rides to work.

That did not last long, Jacobs said, thanks to a used car dealership owner who loaned Jacobs three clunkers while she saved the money to buy her own car. But soon she saw others in a similar predicament.

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In 2000, as the manager of a staffing agency, Jacobs was struck by the high number of clients who lost jobs in which her office had placed them because they couldn't always get there. Others turned down positions and promotions because limited public transportation kept them from early or late shifts.

Jacobs was laid off from her job at the staffing firm in 2001 and turned it into an opportunity to figure out how to "keep working families working." She founded Wheels of Success in 2003 with two donated cars.

The organization gives low-cost, donated and refurbished vehicles to qualified full-time workers or those with job offers.

Employers or social service agencies refer the applicants to the group. Once they receive their vehicles, they must make low monthly payments based on their personal budgets. Those contributions average $40 and go toward repairing cars for other recipients.

"These are used cars. They're not going to last forever," said Jacobs. "What I tell people is, 'This probably isn't your dream car, but hopefully it's going to get you to your dream.' "

Jacobs' group is able to restore donated clunkers to roadworthy operation by partnering with local companies and corporations that help provide auto body work at significantly discounted rates.

Wheels of Success cars come with a free, one-year membership to the American Automobile Association. The organization also helps clients with ongoing repair, licensing, insurance and replacement of a car when it dies. Video Watch how Jacobs and her group provide working wheels for families »

Clients are required to complete a car maintenance class and donate three volunteer hours to Wheels of Success per month. This helps the group serve more clients and gives each recipient the ability to "pay it forward," said Jacobs.

On any given day, Jacobs reports about 100 qualified recipients on the waiting list for vehicles. About 60 new requests come in every other month.

"We would like nothing better than for there not to be a need for us," she said. "But that isn't realistic in the near future and might not be realistic even long-term for people who have three children and day care."

And recipients agree.

"Susan Jacobs is actually saving my life [because] she's saving my job," said Ostrofsky, who had been consistently late arriving to work because of the inconsistency of her bus's arrival. "In turn, she saves my apartment and saves me taking care of my children." Video Watch Ostrofsky receive her Wheels of Success car »

For Jacobs, seeing the results of her work inspires her.

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"I love what I do," she said. "My life has made a difference."

Want to get involved? Check out Wheels of Success and see how to help.

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