On Monday evening, Hampstead resident and father of eight Justin Fontaine found himself in a pinch when the family's only car broke down. Having been living in the county's family shelter until just five months ago, he knew the repairs would be costly and there was a chance the family might need a new car altogether.
That's when Human Services Program of Carroll County shelter manager Margie Cole came over to deliver timely news: The Fontaine family, who have been volunteering at the shelter ever since they moved out and into their own home, was selected to be the recipient of a new car courtesy of Finksburg auto repair shop Shepard Service Center's second annual Car Giveaway Contest.
"We weren't expecting it," Fontaine said after he and his wife, Sherine, were formally given the keys in a ceremony Saturday afternoon at Shepard. "We were unaware that she even put us in the contest."
Shepard, along with Reisterstown (NAPA) Auto Parts, Terry's Tags and Title, Westminster Auto Glass, and Interstate Batteries of Baltimore, has been choosing a deserving local family in need to award a car since 2014. This year, thanks to an abundance of nominations and a last-minute donation by a community member who wished to remain anonymous, they were able to give away two cars; a green 2002 Nissan Altima, to the Fontaines, and a red 2003 Honda Civic, to the Mesa family, of Taneytown.
"We felt that there was a need in the community," said Judd Shepard III, owner of Shepard Service Center. "I wish we had more cars because there are so many qualified people."
After soliciting nominations for families in need in the stores and online, the group received more than 40 nominations, each of which was read by three judges — Terry Smack, owner of Terry's Tags and Title; Mike McMullin, president of the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce; and Sheriff Jim DeWees — who then decided who would receive the cars.
"I read every single one of [the nominations] 10 times," Smack said. "It is heartbreaking to know what goes on in our own community."
"You'd like to give a car to everybody," McMullin said. "Going through an experience like this makes you appreciate business owners like Judd Shepard, and makes you want to go out and get 10 for next year."
Each car the group gives away must meet certain criteria, Shepard said, including functional air conditioning and automatic transmission. When Shepard Service Center acquires a car for donation, he said, the shop's mechanics perform any repairs necessary to get the car in working order and eligible to give away.
For the Fontaines, the gift of the car means Justin Fontaine will no longer have to be dropped off at work each morning at North Carroll High School by his daughters on their way to school at Carroll Community College. They also won't have to travel around in shifts, he said.
The car will also go a long way in helping the Mesa family, the recipients of the other car, Felipe Mesa said.
Mesa and his wife, Yanique, downsized a couple of months ago to one vehicle, thinking they could cut needless expenses by getting rid of a car they didn't seem to need. But in July, they found out Yanique was pregnant with their sixth child. Then in November their 16-year-old son, Zion, was diagnosed with cancer.
Getting Zion to and from Sinai Hospital as often as three times a week for treatment, along with trips for prenatal care, has put a major strain on the family, said Felipe Mesa, who has been using the family's car to make his 50-mile commute to work in Glen Burnie, when he can manage — he's been working from home when he can and burning through time off.
"All of this is new to us," he said, adding that many people have been asking him how they can help. His only response to them, he said, has been, "Just pray."
While Zion was checking out the car his father told him he might get to learn to drive in, 10-year-old little sister, Gloria Lael, said she was glad to finally have leg room, in the family's new car.
"I was excited," she said of when she learned, earlier in the week, that the family would be the recipient of a new vehicle, "especially because if Dad could go back to work, then we won't have to worry about all the doctor bills."
"Good things happen to good people," Justin Fontaine said. "Blessings come back to you, they really do."
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