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Fadina Middleton, of Joppa, smiles as she holds the keys to her new car, which she received through Vehicles for Change during a ceremony Friday at Heritage Mazda Bel Air. Middleton was one of five people who received a vehicle that Heritage MileOne Autogroup donated to Vehicles for Change, which provides transportation to families in need.
Fadina Middleton, of Joppa, smiles as she holds the keys to her new car, which she received through Vehicles for Change during a ceremony Friday at Heritage Mazda Bel Air. Middleton was one of five people who received a vehicle that Heritage MileOne Autogroup donated to Vehicles for Change, which provides transportation to families in need. (David Anderson/The Aegis / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Fadina Middleton moved to Maryland from Florida in April as she left an abusive relationship; she found a job, a residence in Joppa and support services, but without a car, she had to rely on the bus, rides from others and even walking to get to work.

That all changed Friday morning as Middleton and four other individuals and families received the keys to their new vehicles, vehicles that had been donated to the nonprofit Vehicles for Change through the MileOne Auto Group. The vehicles were presented to the recipients at Heritage Mazda Bel Air’s new dealership at 1800 Belair Road in Fallston.

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Towson-based MileOne is the parent company of Heritage Mazda Bel Air, one of 21 dealerships in the Baltimore area and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania under the company’s Heritage division. Six cars were donated to Vehicles for Change, although the recipient of the sixth vehicle was not present for the ceremony Friday morning.

“Ever since I came here to Maryland, everything has been looking so great for me,” Middleton told the dignitaries assembled in the Heritage Mazda parking lot.

She and the other recipients, who came from throughout the state, stood next to the vehicles of different makes and models, each adorned with a large blue ribbon. A Heritage staffer or dignitary handed the key to each person.

Middleton, 47, said Harford County’s bus service does not run on weekends, meaning she has to use a ride-share service such as Uber or Lyft or walk and hope to hitch a ride to work at XPO Logistics’ distribution center near Aberdeen.

“Now, I can finally go back and forth to work, work overtime and no more walking,” said Middelton, who received a four-door 2006 Honda Civic.

She and her 13-year-old son, Jakob, moved to Harford County from Oviedo, Florida, a community near Orlando. She praised the services available in Maryland, such as Vehicles for Change and the Bel Air-based SARC, which supports survivors of domestic and sexual abuse, stalking and child abuse.

“Everything is so great here in the state of Maryland,” Middleton said.

Transportation crucial to escape poverty

Martin Schwartz, president of the Halethorpe-based Vehicles for Change, praised the organization’s many business and government partners for their support, noting that “it takes a whole state, really, to award cars to families and change lives.”

Vehicles for Change, founded in 1999, serves families in need throughout Maryland and has recently expanded into Virginia and Michigan, according to Schwartz.

“When a car goes to a family, the impact that that has is really so far beyond economics,” he said.

“The ability to take your children to after-school activities, and to be involved in education and to be involved in athletics and get to doctors’ appointments, and so many of us take all of that for granted, right?” Schwartz added.

He stressed that partnerships with companies such as MileOne and Heritage Mazda are crucial, “because the number one problem in our program is to get a car donated.” Schwartz said many organizations compete for vehicle donations, and relationships with auto dealers “make it so much easier for us.”

Constantine Spivak, division president for Heritage, also emphasized the importance of reliable transportation for families in need.

“At Heritage Mazda, we believe that transportation can transform people’s lives,” Spivak said during the ceremony.

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He said it makes people “more employable, while also allowing for more and possibly better work alternatives,” plus they now have the freedom to attend school, go grocery shopping, take their children to and from after-school and sports program and help loved ones get to medical appointments.

Vehicles for Change has partnered with Heritage and MileOne for about four years, and the company has donated about 50 vehicles during that time, Schwartz said. Potential recipients cannot apply to Vehicles for Change directly, but they must be referred by partner agencies such as social services departments, he said. More information is online at https://www.vehiclesforchange.org, or people can call 1-855-820-7990.

Schwartz cited a study by the Brookings Institution think tank that states about 60,000 low-income households in the Baltimore metro area do not have a car or access to public transportation they can use to get to and from work.

“The challenge of escaping poverty without transportation is practically impossible,” said Schwartz, who noted public transit in rural/suburban Harford County is “minuscule" compared to the system in Baltimore.

Moving full circle

Schwartz discussed another mission of Vehicles for Change — the Full Circle Auto Repair & Training Center at its Halethorpe headquarters. Individuals, many of whom have just come out of the state prison system, get job training as auto mechanics. They work on the donated vehicles and prepare them to go to the families.

Schwartz introduced a handful of Full Circle students who attended the ceremony Friday, as well as a graduate, Christopher Nelson, who was hired as a technician by Heritage and works in the Heritage Honda Bel Air dealership next door to Heritage Mazda.

“We are incredibly lucky to be able to work with these young men and women who are coming out of incarceration,” Schwartz said.

“We need to let more people know that this program is available, and we need your car to keep this program going and make a difference,” he told the audience.

Nelson, 41, of Belcamp, said working with Heritage has been “a life-changing experience.” He has worked at the dealership for about two years and has been able to move from Baltimore to a home he purchased in Harford County.

“It’s a two-way street,” he said of Vehicles for Change. “When you donate a car you’re helping a family, and you’re helping build another career at the same time.”

Nelson visits the Full Circle students once a week to volunteer and mentor them, “to show other people that there is more to life.”

“With these programs, it shows that you can make a mistake early on and still recover from it and move past it,” he said.

Businesses give back

The ceremony Friday was also a grand opening celebration for Heritage Mazda Bel Air’s new facility. The Mazda dealership moved from its former location near Harford Mall in Bel Air to Belair Road in January — Heritage acquired the Honda dealership in 2017 and later bought the vacant property, a former Fiat/Alfa Romeo dealership, according to Spivak.

Charlie Yerkes, district sales manager for Mazda North American Operations, presented two plaques to Spivak. The first was to celebrate the opening of Heritage’s new Mazda dealership, and it came with a letter from Masahiro Moro, chairman and CEO of Mazda North American Operations, as well as a wooden spoon symbolizing good fortune. The Japanese kanji characters for prosperity were engraved on the spoon, according to Yerkes.

The district manager presented a second plaque in honor of the 25th anniversary of Heritage Mazda Bel Air.

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“Hopefully, this will serve as a symbol of good fortune over the next 25 years,” Yerkes said of the first plaque.

Harford County Executive Barry Glassman and Maryland Commerce Secretary Kelly Schulz presented honors to Heritage Mazda and Vehicles for Change. Both officials noted they have known Schwartz and worked with Vehicles for Change for a number of years.

“Marty and his team have done such an extraordinary amount of work in the community, all across the state of Maryland,” Schulz said.

Schulz was the state’s Secretary of Labor before being appointed to her current role during Gov. Larry Hogan’s second term. She reflected on her time at the labor department, working with Vehicles for Change and other programs that support people who have been incarcerated, and she expressed her gratitude at working with people who understood “the purpose of economic growth and development in an individual’s life.”

The business community often gets “a bad rap," as many critics “seem to think that we only care about the bottom line,” Schulz said.

“It’s very, very important to be able to share these success stories and these contributions from corporate entities, that want to be able to make sure that our community is whole and sound and that your prosperity also comes with a purpose,” she said, addressing Heritage and Mazda officials.

Glassman noted a personal vehicle is a necessity for residents of Harford, which he called “a growing suburban county.”

“We do have a bus service in the Route 40 area, but if you’re in the northern part of the county, you need a vehicle to get to work, to get a job, to lift your family up,” he said.

Glassman described how helping families and individuals in need has been part of his administration’s mission.

“We’re doing very well,” he said. “We lead the state in a number of areas, but one of my missions, also, is to then make sure that we lift folks up that live in the community, that they can enjoy all the great things that Harford County has to offer.”

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