In 2014 Melissa Gatus found herself in trouble. The kind of trouble that could have landed her in jail. But after receiving help through the Open Door Mission and getting her life back together, she was referred to an organization that could take her even further—literally. Chariots 4 Hope is a local non-profit that restores donated cars and provides them to low-come individuals and families, giving them a chance to become self-reliant in a way that is critical to their well-being.
Started by Michelle and Jason Hurt, the story of how Chariots 4 Hope began is just as inspiring as the stories of those they help. After a long career in the insurance industry, Jason decided it was time for a change, and he and Michelle launched into a new career as small business owners. They had an opportunity to buy a Christian Brothers Automotive franchise and moved from the East Coast to Omaha. As a couple of faith, they started their Chariots 4 Hope ministry and gave away their first car in 2014. With such a strong need for transportation among low-income families in Omaha, the organization grew quickly. By the fall of 2015, the Hurt’s knew they wanted to sell the franchise and devote all of their time to Chariots 4 Hope.
“We reached out to Christian Brothers and told them our hearts weren’t in the business anymore,” Michelle said. What at first looked like was going to be a big loss turned into an act of grace. “Two months later they told us they were in support of our mission, took over the franchise, and let us walk away debt free. We left in November of 2015 without a paycheck, just our faith.” Running the organization from their dining room table, Jason and Michelle established a Board of Directors and partnerships with a dozen other local non-profits such as Open Door Mission and Bethlehem House that refer candidates to their program.
There is also certain criteria the candidates must meet in order to be considered. They must have been in a partnering organization’s program for at least six months, provide a budget for maintaining a car, and provide proof of car insurance. Once they receive the vehicle, they are also required to participate in Chariots’ after care program for six months, which includes classes on money management, car care, and mentorship. Each month the candidates attend class, Chariots will extend the warranty another month they provide on the car.
In just two years, Chariots 4 Hope has grown from giving away one car in 2014 to giving away 35 cars in 2016. And each car they give is celebrated with a “Blessing” event, often to the surprise of the recipient. Kelly O’Connor, who was part of Bethlehem House’s program, recently received a car just five days after having her first child. “It was a total surprise,” she said during her Blessing. “I’m so thankful to be in this program. I can start applying for jobs and no longer have to walk everywhere.” Jason said he was impressed with Kelly right away. “She was so detailed with her budget and determined to make it work.”
Car donations are critical to the organization, and Chariots accepts everything, whether it’s drivable or not. Once the car is restored, the donor can get full cash value of the car for a tax write-off. So a car that would normally go for $500 at auction can be restored to a value of $2500 for example. Chariots also partners with local companies, such as Intertech Collision for body work, Owners Pride for detailing, and Safelite Auto Glass for glass repair. “The automotive industry here locally has been wonderful to work with and so encouraging for us to see,” Michelle said.
Other local companies also have opportunities to get involved. Chariots’ Jumpstart program allows a business to sponsor a family by donating money toward car repair and then host the Blessing at their location. Chariots will also be hosting its first annual golf event on June 1st, 2017, at Tiburon, and sponsorship opportunities are available for that as well. And with growth comes the need for more space, so they are currently looking for a location that can house offices, a repair shop, and classrooms.
With 21,000 low-income households without cars in Omaha, and 70% of entry-level jobs that are unreachable via transit, the need for Chariots 4 Hope is greater than ever. But Michelle explained that what they’re providing is way more than just a car. “It’s a way to stop the cycle of poverty and instantly expand their world,” she said. “Removing the transportation barrier is such a huge step and is often an overwhelming reality for these families.”
Michelle and Jason also continue to mentor and help the individuals and families even outside the aftercare program. “We’re partners with them, want to help them, and share our lives with them,” Michelle said. For the recipients, that means even more than the car itself. “I feel so humbled and grateful for Jason and Michelle,” Melissa said. “They’ve shown me that no matter where you’re at in life, there’s always hope.”