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Vehicles for Change and LifeSpan Network team up to create circle of giving

Senior citizens donate their cars to be awarded to low-income families; proceeds then benefit nursing assistants

By Sarah LaCorte, The Baltimore Sun

June 9, 2014

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Isabella Firth, president of LifeSpan Network and The Beacon Institute, was just trying to solve a couple of workplace concerns. In the process, she ended up creating a circle of charitable acts benefiting students, senior citizens and low-income families.

LifeSpan Network, a senior care provider, serves organizations throughout the state, including assisted-living and nursing facilities, retirement communities and hospital-based programs. The Beacon Institute is LifeSpan's educational arm, giving senior service providers educational opportunities.

Firth's idea started as a result of pondering two concerns. First was the need to fund more scholarships and create more opportunities for nursing assistants.

"Beacon's mission is to educate and train senior care professionals who are caregivers in Maryland so professional caregivers in assisted-living buildings and in retirement communities and nursing homes can learn how to be really good at their jobs," Firth said. "Their jobs are hard; they do a lot of hands-on work with seniors, and they have to understand about medication, health conditions and cognitive [issues]."

The second problem was the cars on nursing home lots, many no longer used by the senior residents.

"There are retirement communities where a fair amount of seniors have cars that when they move into a retirement community they bring with them, but as they age, they often stop using their cars," she said. "That has become a problem. There are always cars sitting there and nobody is using them."

The solution came via Vehicles for Change, a nonprofit founded in 1999 that offers donated vehicles at a discount to eligible low-income families in need of transportation.

"It's not easy to find ways to help a lot of people all at once," Firth said. "It occurred to me this past year that through connecting up several different charitable organizations, we could accomplish a lot of different things."

Firth took advantage of a program offered by Vehicles for Change through which nonprofits can solicit car donations; the recommending nonprofit in turn is paid a portion of the resulting proceeds.

"We were founded to accept old vehicles, repair them and award them to low-income families who need them," Vehicles for Change marketing director Jen Harrington said, adding, "The partnership program grew as a way to market Vehicles for Change to other organizations because we knew these organizations had a strong network of supporters and we knew it would benefit those nonprofits to have a donation of cars on their behalf."

The partnership between LifeSpan Network and Vehicles for Change officially started in October at the Charlestown retirement community. When seniors donate their cars, Vehicles for Change gives money to The Beacon Institute's Geriatric Nursing Assistance scholarship program. The seniors who owned the cars receive tax deductions. Each car donated reaps a $750 scholarship for Geriatric Nursing Assistance, which is typically good for one course credit for a nursing student.

Although only four cars have been donated to date on behalf of The Beacon Institute's scholarship program, Harrington said the partnership works as a promotion for both sides.

"One of the wonderful things about the LifeSpan Network is the fact that we know that the funds that are raised on their behalf directly impact their staff," Harrington said. "At their natural base are people who no longer need a vehicle and need a natural way to dispose of it. It is a win-win between both organizations, and it magnifies the impact we are having on the community."

Tazaa Sweeney was the first to receive a scholarship for her work at Caritas House, an assisted-living community in Halethorpe. As a nursing student at the Community College of Baltimore County who works full time, Sweeney said she was grateful she would not have to wait for money to fund her passion.

"I have worked in assisted living for 12 years. ... I just want to make a difference in someone else's life," said Sweeney, who wants eventually to become a registered nurse. "They enjoy seeing me when I come in to work in the morning, and that is rewarding to me."

In the future, Firth hopes to extend the program to more assisted-living communities. She would also like to allow seniors to choose the target of the scholarship from their donated vehicle.

"I think there is no shortage of people who want to do good works. By one simple act of donating your car, you can create so much good will," Firth said. "It is a perfect example for nonprofits with disparate causes — if they just connected up a little bit better, we can exponentially grow with the good."