Karyn Wilmer's car doesn't look like much, with faded paint and a plastic sheet covering the leaky sunroof. But the humble, dark green 1998 Honda Accord has changed her life since a local nonprofit put her behind the wheel.
The 24-year-old single mother received the low-cost used car from Halethorpe-based Vehicles for Change, allowing her to reach a job she loves and freeing her from dependence on bus service provided by the Maryland Transit Administration.
"It was almost a miracle for me," Wilmer said of the car she received in February.
But on Tuesday morning Wilmer's car remained parked outside her Overlea home as she took a step back into her former life, when the only way to get around was to take the bus or walk.
Accompanied by a state legislator and a Vehicles for Change board member, Wilmer and her 2-year-old son, Robert, repeated the journey to a grocery store that they made many times during the year and a half she was without a car and couldn't afford to buy one with the money she made from occasional baby-sitting jobs.
Wilmer was one of a half-dozen recipients of Vehicles for Change cars who allowed local business and government leaders to shadow them as they retraced their former routines as part of the nonprofit's "Walk In Their Shoes" event.
The occasion brought Del. James Malone from his district in southwestern Baltimore and eastern Howard counties to Northeast Baltimore. The veteran Democrat chairs the House subcommittee that oversees transportation issues. He has been a friend of Marty Schwartz, the executive director of Vehicles for Change, since their days at Cardinal Gibbons High School.
Malone said he rode MTA buses regularly when he was a student but couldn't remember the last time he had done so. He and Vehicles for Change board member Travis Martz accompanied Wilmer as she pushed Robert in his stroller along the six-block route to the No. 15 bus stop on Belair Road.
Then the two men got a close-up look at the life of transit-dependent Baltimoreans.
The bus, scheduled to run at 15-minute intervals, didn't appear until nearly a half hour had passed. It wasn't an ordeal on a perfect fall day, but Wilmer said the waiting gets tiresome when it's cold or raining.
Often, she said, she would give up on the bus and just walk the mile from the stop to the Bi-Rite store in the 5900 block of Belair Road.
Also waiting at the stop was Linda Taylor, who wasn't surprised by the delay. She said that one recent evening she arrived at the No. 15 stop at 8:30 and had to wait until 10:30 for a bus.
The 50-year-old, who lives near Morgan State University, hadn't heard of Vehicles for Change.
Since she lost her car four months ago, Taylor said, her income has declined as the health care agency she works for cut her hours because she can no longer make home visits. With the bus running late, Wilmer had ample time to brief Taylor about the program.
"I'm going to call them as soon as I get home," Taylor said.
Wilmer, who heard about Vehicles for Change from a friend who donated a car to the group, said her Honda came at a perfect time: She had a job offer she couldn't have accepted without being able to drive.
The car, which arrived with 131,000 miles on it, wasn't free. Wilmer pays $67 a month for the $650 vehicle, which came with a six-month warranty and a year of AAA road service.
"It's not welfare. You're not getting anything for free. You still have your dignity," Wilmer said. A bonus, she added, is that her payments on the loan arranged by Vehicles for Change help her build a credit record.
When the bus finally arrived, Wilmer went through the drill faced by many mothers who ride the bus: folding up the stroller, carrying both it and a strapping child on board, and then getting her fare into the box without infuriating the riders backed up behind her.
It's more difficult on the way back when loaded down with groceries, she said. But on this occasion Wilmer got a break: Malone carried the bags from the bus stop to her home.
The lawmaker called Vehicles for Change, which is based in his district, "fantastic." He wants the General Assembly to look into whether the state could assist.
"This is truly a program that helps people," he said.
(Malone also indicated that MTA chief Ralign T. Wells should expect some questions about bus service the next time he appears before the transportation subcommittee. MTA spokesman Terry Owens said that there were no bus runs cut on the No. 15 route Tuesday and that the agency would need time to determine the cause of the delay.)
Towanda Coleman, a 29-year-old mother of four, said the 110,000-mile 1998 Chevy Tahoe that she acquired in August — for which she pays $75 a month — has made a big difference in her family life. Now she can take her children on more outings and pick them up from school.
"They don't have to sit and wait a long time," she said.
And, by driving from her Barclay Street home to Mount Washington instead of taking two buses and the light rail, Coleman said, she can pick up more overtime at the Whole Foods Market where she works.
Schwartz, the nonprofit's top executive since its founding in 1999, said a survey of Vehicles for Change recipients showed that 70 percent gained thousands of dollars of income in the year after receiving a car.
Vehicle recipients also benefit in other ways, he said. "Their children are getting to do sports. You know these kids don't get to play sports because they can't get to practice."
Schwartz said the group's biggest challenge is the same one it has always faced: getting enough cars to help needy families.
The typical vehicle donated to the group is a 10-year-old car with 120,000 miles, Schwartz said, adding that the typical recipient is a single mother with two or three children.
According to Schwartz, to qualify for a low-cost car, an applicant must have a job or a solid employment offer — and a reasonably clean driving record, with no drunken-driving convictions, because it makes no sense to provide cars to people who aren't insurable.
The program provided 420 cars to Baltimore families last year and has set a target of 520 this year, said Schwartz, who hopes eventually to give out 1,000 annually. Vehicle donors can take a tax deduction.
The group aims to provide cars that will last at least two years or 24,000 miles. After two years, recipients are usually earning enough to trade up on their own, Schwartz said.
Vehicles for Change accepts all types of vehicles. Schwartz said luxury and low-mileage cars are likely to be sold through the organization's used-car business on Washington Boulevard, which accounts for 30 percent of its income. "Junkers" are sold at auction. Vehicles in between are considered "keepers" and are awarded to families.
Those cars can be hard to come by as motorists hang on to their vehicles longer and longer.
"We're actually getting more cars, but the cars that we're getting are a little bit older," Schwartz said. "It's hard to get a keeper car."