Driver’s Seat: Couple does good works with cars

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Kate and Dave Martin made a connection among fighter jets and now share a bond in mechanics.

Someday the Somerset County couple plan to share that bond with others who might need help with car maintenance or repair.

Maybe call them Mr. and Mrs. Good Works Wrench.

After the couple graduated from different training programs in auto mechanics in eastern Pennsylvania, their help was needed working on the family farm and tending to family business needs near the tiny burgh of Hollsopple, just south of Johnstown.

Then a business mentor mentioned how he made monetary donations to help someone who needed a car repair but couldn't afford it.

“We heard him talk about this and we realized that we could actually do this ourselves,” Kate said.

Not by making monetary donations, though — by setting up their own shop on the farm. “We’re looking forward to applying our skills to help people in need, such as a single mom who can’t afford an oil change,” Kate added via email.

The couple, who met in 2009 in the Air Force in Idaho and married the following year, didn't initially share a mechanical bond.

“I've been obsessed with cars since I was little,” said Dave, who’s in the midst of restoring a 1964 Dodge Polara.

Kate, not so much. “I met Dave and I had absolutely no interest in cars whatsoever.”

Though plenty of couples have a “he restores – she patiently puts up with it” kind of relationship, few are those who find marital harmony on the garage floor.

But Dave’s post-military enrollment at Universal Technical Institute in Exton, Chester County, set the wheels in motion. He would come back to their townhouse an hour away in Reading filled with stories of what he’d learned that day during his 75-week course in auto and diesel mechanics.

So Kate decided to enroll in the shorter, year-long autos-only course at the school. She graduated a month before his December 2013 matriculation.

UTI likes to tout the numbers of people it trains every year (about 12,200 in 2012 on 10 campuses around the country) and the percentage who find jobs after graduating (85 percent in 2012). But rare is the individual who leaves and decides to donate services. 

In fact, I’d only been able to track down one similar story in the country: His Hands Auto Care in Midland, Mich.

Hands Auto Care general manager Wes Allison said as far as he is aware, the garage — a $358,000 shop opened in May behind Messiah Church in the Michigan town just inland from Saginaw Bay -- is the only one of its kind in the United States. He does know of quarterly programs where churches or other groups provide various levels of volunteer services fixing car.

“I know there’s people helping out in the community in those ways,” Mr. Allison said.

He said the garage — with him, two full-time mechanics and lots of volunteers — provides most repairs for the needy for the cost of parts and no charge for labor. Those who qualify can make up to 200 percent of poverty level, which is $21,000 for an individual. Some agencies provide even more assistance with payment.

The garage pays its salaries and keeps almost entirely afloat with paying customers.

“We work with agencies in our county like Salvation Army, Disability Network, Community Mental Health,” Mr. Allison said, in a telephone interview, between signing for shipments. The noise of the shop could be heard in the background. “I can’t look at someone’s income; it would be technically against the law for me to do that. I work with agencies that can do that.”

Local charitable leaders say the service is something new to them as well.

Cynthia Oliver, director of advancement for Catholic Charities of Pittsburgh, said she’s heard of nothing like it in her years of experience fundraising, consulting and even serving as executive director for several different groups in the Steel City.

But she’s all for it because it really fills a need: Making sure people can get to that job to earn the paycheck the may be the only thing keeping them from life on the streets.

“Transportation in general can be a difficult obstacle — that’s always an issue and a concern,” Ms. Oliver said. “I think it’s a great concept.”

Bob Kessler, campus president at UTI-Exton, said he was “proud and excited” by the Martins’ plan.

“It comes as no surprise that Kate and Dave have chosen to take their expertise and skills acquired at UTI and apply them to helping others,” Mr. Kessler said in an email. “During their time on campus, their passion for cars combined with their hunger to learn was always complemented by a compassion for those around them.”

The couple, who hope to start with simple maintenance and maybe graduate to bigger repairs and auto body, know they need to pace themselves. They’re hoping to get going more strongly in mid-2015, after Dave finishes an auto body course next year.

They may find themselves fielding lots of requests for help – and maybe even starting a larger trend. Catholic Charities’ Cynthia Oliver, who’s pursuing a doctorate and is writing a dissertation on the motivation of giving, says it sounds almost like a can’t-miss proposition.

“I think for the donors, it’s good; for the community, it’s good for them, too, when you can give back in a way that has personal meaning for you but also in a way that meets a significant need,” Ms. Oliver said.

Scott Sturgis, a freelance auto writer, can be reached at

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