Seven years ago, Connie Hanson had a minivan that needed an engine repair and new brakes, but she didn’t have enough money in her bank account to cover nearly $1,000 in repairs.

“I needed to go grocery shopping and take my daughter to Girl Scouts, but I had no way to get there,” said Hanson, 55, who has a disability and lives in Anoka, Minn., near Minneapolis.

“I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do,” she said. “And then I learned about Cathy.”

A couple of years after graduating from auto mechanic school, Cathy Heying had opened a shop in 2013 called the Lift Garage to help people with low incomes keep their cars on the road.

A former pastoral minister and social worker for 20 years, she said she had heard many stories from people who had lost their jobs (and, subsequently, their apartments) when they could not afford to get their cars repaired.

“It got me thinking about how much hinges on having reliable transportation, especially in rural areas without a bus line,” said Heying, 49, who lives in Minneapolis.

“If somebody can’t get to work, there’s a good chance they’re going to lose their job,” she said. “And that starts another chain of crises.”

In Hanson’s case, her van was a lifeline, providing her a way to get supplies for her home business (she makes customized inhaler cases for people with asthma), mail products to customers, pick up groceries and shuttle her daughter, Kyarandamarie, to school and Girl Scout meetings.

“I have difficulty walking, so without the van, I’d be homebound,” she said.

Faced with a sizable repair bill, Hanson said she was thrilled to learn about the Lift Garage, a nonprofit car repair shop in Minneapolis that sells parts at cost and charges only $15 an hour for labor, compared with upward of $100 an hour charged by other car shops.

“Instead of $1,000, my repair bill from Cathy ended up to be about $300,” Hanson said. “I’ve got to say, she’s my hero. She made it possible for me to have a way to get around and keep my independence.”

Although she initially felt a little intimidated walking into an auto shop class full of teenagers, Heying said, she soon realized she’d made the right decision at age 38 to get a degree in auto technology from Dunwoody College of Technology.

“The classes were horribly hard, but I knew in my heart that if I could help people keep their cars running, it was worth it,” she said.

When she opened her garage in March 2013, the stories she heard from her customers verified that hunch.

“I remember asking one guy who was homeless, ‘Why are you holding on to this car? It’s costing you a lot of money,’ ” Heying recalled.

The man’s answer stayed with her:

“He told me, ‘This car is the last thing I have left in my life from before I became homeless,’” she said.

“He said that he hadn’t always been this person — he’d had a family, a job, a good life,” Heying added. “But a bunch of things went wrong and his car was all he had left. It helped him to maintain a sense of normalcy.”

At the Lift Garage, dignity is often repaired with mufflers and car heaters, she said.

“Every single person who comes to the shop is treated with kindness and respect,” Heying said. “There’s such a huge need out there — I have five full-time car techs, and we can barely keep up. Right now, our wait list goes out to November. But my main thing is to meet people where they’re at.”

Heying is able to charge 75 percent less than most shops do for repairs, she said, thanks to generous grants and donations that help cover the cost difference.

“We’ve gone from fixing four cars a month to 120 a month, and from no budget in 2013 to a $1.3 million budget today,” she said. “We get commercial-volume discounts on parts, but we don’t mark them up 200 percent like a lot of shops. It would be impossible for our customers to pay for the repairs otherwise.”

Before getting an appointment and a cost estimate, clients have to provide proof that they meet low-income requirements, Heying said.

“And it also has to be a car repair that we can do, like an engine repair, new brakes, suspensions, tires and fuel systems,” she said. “Power windows, body work and replacing entire transmissions aren’t worth the effort on old cars with a lot of miles.”

Now that she is buying the building she’d rented for her garage on East Lake Street, there is much to be grateful for, she said, especially since the Lift Garage came close to burning down three months ago.

On May 28, during the unrest in Minneapolis after George Floyd’s death in police custody, an Arby’s restaurant next door to Heying’s garage was set ablaze by protesters. Looters also broke into the Lift Garage, stealing computers and tools, Heying said.

“I had preemptively boarded up the windows and suddenly [at home], I was watching looters removing the boards on live television,” she said. “I was devastated. I thought, ‘Here we go — the shop is going down.’ ”

Heying burst into tears, she said, thinking about the customers whose cars were in the shop. “It looked like everything was going to be lost,” she said.

Fortunately, a friend who owns a shop nearby saw what was happening and gathered customers and strangers together to help guard the garage, Heying said.

“The Arby’s burned to the ground, but the fire thankfully blew away from our building,” she said. “There was a lot of damage, but we were lucky. We suffered almost nothing compared to the other businesses around us.”

Once she’d cleaned up the rubble, a reporter from the Star-Tribune wrote about the damage and how Heying hoped to expand her garage to help more people after the Black Lives Matter protests.

More than $5,000 in donations poured in, Heying said, giving her hope that her nonprofit operation would continue to thrive.

“This is the most tangible work I’ve ever done,” she said. “I’m rooted in this neighborhood and want to help create an inclusive place for everyone who has fallen on hard times and needs a little help.”

Hanson, for one, said she can’t imagine taking her van anywhere else for new tires or repairs.

“Cathy goes out of her way to make you feel welcome,” Hanson said. “She doesn’t judge you, she doesn’t talk down to you, she gives it to you straight and will even teach you how to change your oil. Where else can you find a deal like that?”

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