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Program Is Purring Right Along

Troubled teenagers help themselves and their group home by repairing donated vehicles to be sold for fund-raising.

October 19, 2002|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

Operators of a Highland Park center for troubled teenagers knew where to go when their fund-raising program needed a tuneup.

They pulled into their group home's auto repair shop.

That's where Optimist Youth Homes & Family Services leaders are applying a torque-wrench twist to the popular charity car donation by assigning teenage mechanics to repair old automobiles before they are sold.

Not only do the fixed-up cars fetch a higher price, but the teenagers learn mechanical skills that make them employable once they are released from the court-run group home system.

Professional solicitation firms operate most of the nation's charity car-donation programs. They deduct a portion of a vehicle's selling price to cover their operational costs, towing charges and advertising expenses. If a used-car broker or auction house is needed to dispose of the donated vehicle, those costs are also deducted from the eventual proceeds that charities receive.

As a result, charities designated by donors of cars never actually see the vehicle. And they typically receive only about 20% of the car's selling price as a cash donation.

Optimist Youth Homes officials say they keep all the profit because they sell the refurbished cars directly from the facility's North Figueroa Street auto shop.

"We don't have a broker in the middle taking most of the donation," said Silvio John Orlando, executive director of the 100-bed group home, established 96 years ago by Optimist Club members.

The auto shop is part of the curriculum of a high school that is operated in conjunction with the home. Because most residents are placed there by the Probation Department, its $25-million annual budget comes primarily from the state and county.

But this year the home has a $512,000 supplemental fund-raising goal. Staff members Gayle Wayne and Bob Weiner suggested the do-it-yourself car repair and resale program to help meet it.

"We don't know of any other donation program like this around here, and we're familiar with them all," Wayne said. He said some of the proceeds from car sales will be spent on a new $32,000 hydraulic lift for the auto shop.

Others are revved up over the Optimists' hands-on approach to charitable car donations.

"The only other place I know of that does it is a school in Maryland. It's a wonderful idea," said Daniel Borochoff, president of the Chicago-based American Institute of Philanthropy. "A lot of times, the charity gets very little from this type of donation. Here you get 100% good use of your donation."

Optimist auto shop teacher Manuel Lauria said the 30 teenagers enrolled in mechanics classes in the past handled routine servicing and maintenance on the home's fleet of 25 late-model cars and vans.

Since the car-donation program began a month ago, the teens have repaired and performed cosmetic touch-ups on a 1987 Dodge and a 1986 Peugeot, which were sold for a total of $2,300. They are working on a 1992 Pontiac Firebird, and on Thursday they received a donated 1989 Chevrolet sedan as their next project. The home guarantees all repairs.

Lauria said a shortage of parking space at the shop restricts the number of cars to 10 at a time. He said the program accepts fixable "clunkers, not junkers" that are destined to be scrapped or sold for parts. Fliers soliciting auto donations -- and potential buyers -- have been sent to 8,000 local Optimist Club members.

The youngsters doing the repair work are already giving the program a greasy thumbs-up. They earn as much as $30 a week working there.

"I've learned the basics, and I'm confident about what I do," said Joseph Ramirez, 17, who is finishing a 16-month sentence on an assault conviction. "When I leave here, I'm thinking about going to auto mechanics trade school."

Another student, Joseph Maxwell, 17, of Pasadena said he has learned self-discipline working on the cars. "I wish I had a 9-to-5 job working here," he said.

Maxwell, who has been at the Optimist home for five months because of a joy-riding conviction, said there is only one thing missing from the donated-car repair program.

"They don't let us test-drive the cars after were finished working on them," he lamented.

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