Unlikely mechanic gives needy a 'lift'

CNN Hero Cathy Heying
CNN Hero Cathy Heying

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CNN Hero Cathy Heying 01:47

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Minneapolis (CNN)Unexpected car repairs can blow anyone's budget. But when you're struggling to make ends meet, the impact can extend well beyond your bank account. As a social worker in Minneapolis, Cathy Heying repeatedly saw how car problems could create a domino effect that endangered her clients' health, their jobs, even their homes. 

For years, she wished someone would do something about the problem. Then one day Heying realized, "Oh dang, I think that somebody might be me." In 2008, she quit her full-time job and enrolled in automotive school.
Five years later, armed with a degree in auto technology, Heying founded The Lift. Her nonprofit garage provides steeply discounted car repairs to low-income individuals.
    The approach is simple: Heying sells parts at cost, with no markup, and charges $15 an hour for labor; the going rate in Minneapolis is around $100 an hour. The result? Big savings for her customers. And for those who can't pay in full, she will work out payment plans. To date, Heying has provided affordable car repairs to more than 300 low-income individuals, saving them more than $170,000 and keeping them on the road to success.
    CNN Hero Cathy Heying: Beneath 'The Lift'
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    CNN Hero Cathy Heying: Beneath 'The Lift' 02:24
    I talked with Heying about her career change and what she's learned from her work. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
    Kathleen Toner: One day you're a social worker, the next you're in automotive school. What was that like?
    Cathy Heying: Imagine a scene of a 38-year-old woman and 18-year-old boys. I want to talk about feelings and people, and they want to talk about cars. That sums it up. It was a huge culture shift and a huge knowledge shift. I had to use my brain very differently.
    I did not grow up working on cars. I did not have a father that wrenched on cars. It was not part of my life growing up. I taught myself a few things (like) changing oil. But for the most part, I had no skills around car maintenance. I cried all the way to school the first day 'cause I was like, "What have I done?" So it was terrifying and overwhelming. And at least three solid times in that first quarter, I was like, "I'm quitting. I cannot do this."
    I give credit, at least in that first quarter, to one of my instructors who's now on the board of The Lift, who kept saying, "I know that you have a good vision here, and I'm going to help you get through this." And when I really thought about it, going to school is nothing compared to people who are trying to raise their kids on minimum wage, who are living with a broken-down car in subzero weather. Basically, I needed to buck up.
    Toner: What's it like being a mechanic?
    Heying: It's physically hard. You find yourself in all sorts of crazy positions, digging under things. You're lifting tires. You're wrenching on things. But it is mentally challenging, and it can be really frustrating. Because you have all the pieces and for some reason, something is not working, and it's like, "What is it?" And to really think thoroughly and understand full systems and how those systems play together, it is, I think, way more difficult than I think the average person thinks it is.
    I think of being a mechanic a lot like being a doctor. People come in, they give you a list of symptoms. You try to ask a lot of questions to narrow it down until we get an accurate diagnosis. And sometimes we get it wrong, but most of the time we get it right. But it is an art and a science mixed into one. It's a very satisfying job, when you can have a car come in not starting and you send it out the door running. At the end of the day, you can feel really good because you can look back and be like, "This is what I did today."
    Toner: You're also helping some of the mechanics on your staff. How so?
    Heying: Different members of our staff have struggled with poverty and crisis in their own lives. Some of them have had interactions with the criminal justice system. Two of the three techs that we have I met when they were both experiencing homelessness. And they are all trained, formal, certified technicians. And so that is another piece of the work that we do at The Lift. We take a chance on folks who other places might not be willing to take a chance on.
    For some, car problems can trigger a domino effect that threatens people's health, jobs and even their homes.
    Toner: You save your clients a lot of money. How do they react?
    Heying: For the most part, people are ecstatic when they get the bill. And that just makes such a huge difference in people's lives. We had a customer in here a few weeks ago who is sleeping in his car. And he had just gotten released from the hospital because he had frostbite because he didn't have heat in his car. And so it's not just about getting people to and from work or to and from school, even though that's a really important piece of it. It's really about protecting people's lives.
    For many people, having a car that works and that is safe holds the rest of the pieces together. And it really allows them to remain independent, to remain self-sufficient, to meet the basic needs of their lives and do it with dignity.
    Want to get involved? Check out The Lift Garage website at www.theliftgarage.org and see how to help.