Giving cars and men a second chance in Halethorpe

In one location, both cars and ex-offenders get second chances

A man tells me he was in prison for 17 years, and I have to think about that. Seventeen years is pretty much the span of a high school senior's life. Seventeen years takes us back to the late 1990s, the previous millennium, and Bill Clinton's fun-filled second term as president.

In Maryland, Christian Holmes, still a teenager, began serving a 30-year sentence for an armed robbery in Prince George's County. He was not released from prison until this past year. He is 36 years old now and pushing the reset button on his life.

I met Holmes Tuesday morning in Halethorpe. He was among a group of eight ex-offenders, all but one of them in his 30s, who are learning to service cars and trucks at a place called Full Circle Service Center, a subsidiary of the better-known Vehicles for Change, the nonprofit that takes donated cars, repairs them, cleans them and sells them to low-income people who could not otherwise afford them.

Vehicles for Change has been in operation since 1999, the year Christian Holmes went to prison. It has provided 5,140 cars to families in the Baltimore-Washington region. In 2011, the nonprofit studied its customers and found significant reductions in daily commute times — and significant increases in household incomes. It's an anti-poverty program on wheels.

Vehicles for Change also put numerous trainees to work detailing all those used cars.

Full Circle grew out of that operation last spring, the answer to an oft-asked question: "Wouldn't it be great if Vehicles for Change had a repair shop that was open to the public?"

Now, many of Full Circle's customers are the people who bought their cars from Vehicles for Change.

Up to 15 men get six months of on-the-job training from Wayne Farrar, a veteran automotive instructor who came out of retirement to run the Full Circle shop next to the Vehicles for Change facility on Washington Boulevard.

Farrar says he's never had more earnest students.

They learn the basics, from changing oil and tires to repairing brakes to replacing shocks and struts. In the past week, they've studied vacuum-assist power brakes and automatic traction control. Their main textbook is "Automotive Technology" by Erjavec and Thompson. They've been trained in how to use Identifix, a vast database of motor vehicle problems and repairs used by thousands of shops in the U.S., Canada and Latin America.

Holmes joined the program last August. He gestures to a conference table where his fellow trainees are seated: Omari Jennings, the youngest at 24; Lucas Johns, 31, who moved to the Baltimore area from Southern Maryland so he could study engine and transmission replacement at Full Circle; Brandon Carroll, 30; Anthony Watkins, 30; Kiron Golden, 39; Antoine Oglesby, 38; Ralph Leach, 34.

"We've all been in prison and we're determined not to return," Holmes says.

They've all been incarcerated in Maryland, and they all had some auto technology training inside the walls. Full Circle was part of their plans for successful re-entry: training for a job, then finding one that provides a decent income.

They all hope to become mechanics certified by the National Institute of Automotive Service Excellence.

"We are loyal to the people at Full Circle and anyone willing to give us an opportunity," Holmes says. "We're gonna make that person know that it wasn't a mistake to give us a second chance."

Watkins, who entered the program last summer, is ready to finish his internship and take a job with a tire shop at $22 an hour.

He's beaming at the prospect.

"The thing is," he says, "Full Circle trains you in life tools, too. Getting to work on time. They help you with getting your driver's license, with getting into a vehicle of your own so you have better mobility so you cut the excuses out of your life. …

"They also give us legal assistance, all pro bono."

For Watkins, that means getting free advice for a divorce. For Carroll, it meant help clearing up his driving record so he could qualify for a license again. For Johns, it was help with Maryland's criminal record expungement procedures.

All of these men seem grateful for the second chances they're getting — and for the motorists who bring their cars into the Full Circle bays, or donate them to Vehicles for Change.

News to me (and probably to you): Vehicles for Change expanded to Detroit last summer, and that location already has sold 22 cars to low-income families there. Marty Schwartz, the organization's president, says the plan is to open two more Full Circle locations — one in Detroit, one in Prince George's County — within the year. The Baltimore-based nonprofit is building a national profile with a model that, in the realm of progressive re-entry efforts, looks first-class.

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