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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Sheila Richins, manager of Safe Harbor, hugs Earl DeWaal at DeWaal & Sons Body Shop in West Bountiful on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012. DeWaal has started a foundation, Cars That Care, that provides automobiles and auto repairs to single mothers and needy families.
It's amazing. I'm overwhelmed by (DeWaal's) kindness. It's something this county has needed for so long. —Kelsie Strong

WEST BOUNTIFUL — Jessica Felix's commute home on public transportation took nearly 2½ hours every day. 

"It gets to the point my kids don't see me," Felix said, her eyes brimming with tears.

But her Jeep was broken down, and she couldn't afford the repairs. Still, she had to get to work stocking flowers at Costco stores from Ogden to Lehi. That has meant catching the bus at 5:38 a.m. each day, juggling work and her responsibilities as a single mother to two preschool-age children. 

"It takes a lot out of you," Felix said. "The kids want you home. You want to be home. And I can't be sad at work because I'm the flower girl."

On Wednesday, the Cars That Care Foundation lifted Felix's load by leasing her a donated car. The four-door car was refurbished at DeWaal & Sons Towing and Body Shop, owned by Earl DeWaal, who established the foundation 2½ years ago.

Rolling up a garage door to reveal the car, DeWaal beamed as he handed over the vehicle to Felix.

"This is your car," he said, bringing tears to Felix's eyes.

"It makes me not want to give up, this and because of my kids," Felix said.

Until nine months ago, she and her children were living in a domestic violence shelter.

Felix said she considers leasing the car a positive step on their collective journey.

"This is for my kids, too," she said.

Another young mother named Jenifer said she'd endured a difficult divorce and custody fight. On top of that, she has struggled with health problems and the loss of her job.

But as a mother of two children, not having a car was daunting. She has relied on friends for rides here and there. Recently, when her son crushed his hand in a door, a neighbor drove them to the emergency room.

"But then I was stranded there until I could get ride from someone else," said Jenifer, who asked that her last name not be used.

Recently, Jenifer said she worried that she couldn't find a ride to Utah County to join her sister for Thanksgiving dinner.

Jenifer had saved some money for a car, but she was worried she would not be able to buy a reliable vehicle among those advertising in classified ads. When she learned about the Cars That Care Foundation, she contributed her savings — $700 — to the foundation.

DeWaal help her obtain a reliable car, a Dodge Stratus.

"He's an angel. He's like a Christmas angel for me right now," she said.

DeWaal said he will use Jenifer's contribution to the foundation to help repair the car of the another single mother, Rosie, who also has two young children. Like Felix, Rosie is a client of the Safe Harbor domestic violence shelter in Davis County.

"That way, I'm paying forward," Jenifer said.

Rosie said once she receives her income tax refund, she plans to buy a new car and give her old car to the foundation to help someone else.

The foundation, which also provides free vehicle maintenance, repairs and insurance when needed, relies on donations of cars, cash and auto parts. The foundation retains ownership of the cars but leases them to people in need. They pay what they can, which ranges from modest payments to no payment. Recipients are taught how to maintain their cars.

"Our motto is, 'A hand up, not just another handout,'" DeWaal said.

DeWaal & Sons Towing and Body Shop was founded by DeWaal's father in 1947. The shop handles mechanical and body work and operates a tow business, as well as an impound lot. 

The business employs seven people and has enabled DeWaal and his wife, Vickie, to raise a family and send their children to college. On occasion over the years, LDS Church leaders have sent people to DeWaal for help.

But there was something about DeWaal's encounter with a single mother whose car needed repairs and she could not make ends meet to pay for it. 

"I thought, 'Somebody's got to step up. Somebody's got to help,'" DeWaal said. "One day, I had the feeling I had to do more." 

The answer was the Cars That Care Foundation. A friend who is an attorney offered free legal services to help DeWaal set up the foundation.

Seemingly, when DeWaal has needed assistance launching the effort, people have stepped forward to help, he said. 

"I've really had a strong feeling this was something the Lord wanted me to do," he said.

The NAPA Auto Parts store in Bountiful donates $500 a month in auto parts. It has also helped sponsor a billboard that advertises the foundation. DeWaal is on the hunt for other corporate sponsors for the foundation, which is tax-exempt, nonprofit and has a 501c3 application pending with the Internal Revenue Service. 

While the foundation leases cars, most of its work involves repairing vehicles. As Ellie Mitchell's husband, Grant, endured frontotemporal degeneration for a decade with his final years spent in in a nursing home, Mitchell found herself with no money to pay a costly car repair.

The Cars That Care Foundation lent a hand, which Mitchell said was difficult, at first, to accept.

She had been a successful dress designer. Her husband had been a successful realtor in Florida, but he lost his business. And then he lost his health. The couple moved to Utah to be near her husband's family.

"I cried a lot of tears. I was becoming a charity case," she said.

While it was initially humbling to accept help, Mitchell said the gift of the foundation's auto repairs changed her perspective.

"We're all brothers and sisters. One day, any one of us could become needy," she said.

The foundation recently helped Angela Garner when her car needed brake repairs.

"My ex hasn't paid child support since July," Garner said. "I'm maxed out on payday loans. I clean houses for living. I have to have a car every day."

She called DeWaal "a good guy."

"You kind of have to take a step back," Garner said. "You don't run into many people who are like him. You kind of wonder if it's for real."

The gift of leased cars has helped clients of Safe Harbor regain their independence and take better care of their families, said program manager Kelsie Strong.

"It's amazing. I'm overwhelmed by (DeWaal's) kindness. It's something this county has needed for so long," Strong said.

But DeWaal can't shoulder the foundation on his own, she said. Strong called on members of the community to donate vehicles or cash to support the foundation's efforts.

DeWaal said the foundation can accept any car that has a title or once had a title, regardless whether the car runs. A junked car can be sold for cash, which also helps the foundation.

"We're a very small business. There's no way I can fund it, really," DeWaal said.

But the list of people who need help is long. While Wednesday felt a little bit like Christmas at the garage, needs are outstripping the foundation's resources, he said.

"For all the happy girls I have here today, I have a drawer full of applications from some very sad girls waiting for help," he said.

For information on how to give, visit www.carsthatcare.net, call 801-294-4060 or send tax deductible contributions to Cars That Care Foundation, 423 N. 800 West, West Bountiful, UT 84087.

E-mail: [email protected]