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Helping wheels

New program helps people save for an automoblie
For the first time east of the Cascades, a new program helps low-income residents save money for a vehicle.
   Nicki Mehta, who is the regional partnership liaison for the Partnership to End Poverty, said there are several issues for low-income families in central Oregon. One is the limited amount of public transit in the region.
   "How do we accommodate that need?" Mehta asked. "Accessible childcare. Accessible quality of life after school activities (and) citizen events. Things that people who own ...a (reliable) car take for granted."
   The Partnership to End Poverty, which is based out of Redmond, is mainly funded by the Northwest Area Foundation in St. Paul, Minn.
   "Our mantra now in the office is we can't do this alone," she said of the project, which is known as Opportunity Cars For Work, adding that the foundation's mission to end poverty is the same as the partnership's.
   "And we looked at kind of a more holistic approach for the participants," she said, referring to whether that is Opportunity Cars for Work or earned income tax credits.
   One Prineville resident who has been helped through Opportunity Cars for Work and is in the process of transitioning from poverty is Bobbi Piefer, who has a 14-month-old infant son, Brayden.
   Piefer is the first person to have received an auto in the program.
   "Oh it's helped me extremely well," Piefer said of Opportunity Cars for Work. "If it wasn't for that program, I wouldn't have been able to get a job. Because I didn't have a car at all before I got in this program. They made it extremely affordable for me and I don't even have any interest for my car payments, which is really good too."
   She is also happy with her new state job as a receptionist in the Department of Human Services office in Prineville.
   "I would like to say that the car ownership program is more than just placing a family into a vehicle. It's more about positive feedback and feeling that they are not alone in the transition," said Mehta, who has offices both in Prineville at the Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council (COIC) and in Redmond. The Partnership to End Poverty is the new name for the Central Oregon Partnership, and Mehta said the group will soon have a Web site, www.partnershiptoendpoverty.org
   When she meets with clients, she first works with them on a budget, determining how much they can afford for a vehicle, adding that when participants see their budget for the first time, it's an important first step.
   "I really take a look at their budget," Mehta said. "You've got registration fees. You've got gasoline."
   Sometimes people who are eager to purchase a vehicle forget about these and other car expenses.
   "Opportunity Cars for Work is partnering with Community First Bank," Mehta said.
    Community First Bank has agreed to process an auto loan, regardless of someone's credit score, at 7 percent.
   "I don't want the car payments to go over $100 a month, so the maximum purchase price is $3,250," she continued. "But the value of the car is more."
   "They do have to get full coverage at this time, but we are looking at other insurance assistance programs as well," Mehta added. For example, American Family Insurance has agreed to provide more information on affordable insurance and she said Mark Severson of American Family has agreed to pull a participant's driving record for free from the Division of Motor Vehicles. The usual cost for that is $5.
   Mehta has been working closely with two auto dealerships in Crook County, Active Towing, which is expanding its services to include used vehicles, and Robberson Ford.
   Other major participants are Community First Bank, NeighborImpact, the Partnership itself, COIC, the Oregon Department of Human Services, the John and Linda Shelk Foundation, St. Vincent DePaul of Prineville, Housing Works, and all the agencies at the Work Source building in Prineville near Robberson Ford.
   "I tell them what the need is of the participant," she said of the auto dealerships. "Typically it's a used sedan, four-door because we are wanting to support families."
   She said there are two similar vehicle ownership programs in Portland and one in Seattle, but she said this is the first one east of the Cascades.
   "What they have found in their research tracking is after 15 months of car ownership they showed a 10 percent increase in wages," she said.
   Mehta's goal between now and next January is to have 18-25 vehicles available for Crook and Jefferson County residents to purchase.
   "And I'm developing relationships right now with Madras and Warm Springs to expand this model to those areas," she said.
   Mehta hopes to get as many low-income participants as possible.
   "I would love to be seen as more of an advocate," Mehta said. "We're in this together more than anything. We are a community that impacts the region."
   Partnership officials and others are hoping to get the low-income recipients into post-secondary education and higher paying jobs in an effort to combat poverty.
   "So it's a ripple effect...." Mehta said. "One hundred percent of my clientele are women and sometimes it is just a matter of being heard. And so I want to hear more about where people are as a baseline."
   Workshops and classes
   Various classes and workshops are being offered to those participating in Opportunity Cars for Work.
   A financial fitness class is offered every second Saturday of each month from 10 a.m. to noon at the Family Resource Center, 205 NE 4th St., in Prineville. Free child care is available. Please register by calling (541) 548-2380, ext. 138. Upcoming classes will be Feb. 9, March 8, April 12, May 10 and June 14. Budgeting education is provided by NeighborImpact.
   Another class is Basic Auto Maintenance, which is offered by Robberson Ford. That is offered every third Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon at Robberson Ford of Prineville.
   For more information about Opportunity Cars for Work or to make an appointment, call 447-9293.