Program makes cars a reality for workers 

After her car blew up in a cloud of smoke while driving down the highway, Ana Perez was completely dependent on family members to borrow their mini-van to drive to work and pick up her daughter.

She was glad they were there to help, but the loss of her independence wasn’t a good feeling, Perez said. She found herself in a tough position. As a low-income, single mom she couldn’t afford a new, or even used, car. About that time, as she weighed how long it would take to make the trip from her Redwood City home to work in Foster City on three separate buses, her aunt told her about Ways to Work.

"[Ways to Work] gave me a loan of up to $4,000 and I’ll pay back $2,000," Perez said. "Plus, they paid for the first six months of liability insurance." Her aunt, it turned out, was a loan recipient herself a few years back, Perez said.

The program, run by the non-profit Family Service Agency of San Mateo County, hands out low-interest loans of between $3,500 and $4,000, mostly for vehicles. With her loan, Perez bought a 1998 Ford Contour with payments of just $174 a month, she said. "It’s helped me tremendously because I can get to work, to school and to pick up my daughter," said Perez, who is working full-time and studying nursing at the College of San Mateo.

"It’s an incredible program that has an impact on people’s lives," said Laurie Wishard, president of Family Service Agency of San Mateo County. Since 1998, the program has made a total of 216 loans amounting to about $720,000, officials said.

"Having a reliable car allows many of these clients to move into better-paying jobs and to have more time to spend with their families," said Carlos Valenzuela, former Ways to Work division director.

In addition to helping loan recipients improve their stability and job status, owning a car can raise their credit standing and teach them to handle finances and maintain an automobile, Wishard said.

A recent survey shows the program is making measurable differences, officials said. Nationally, Ways to Work — which receives most of its money from federal transportation dollars — has achieved a repayment rate of more than 87 percent. San Mateo County’s loan repayment rate of 93 percent earned the program national recognition recently, said Katherine Chouteau, spokeswoman for Family Service.

An estimated 92 percent of local loan recipients report missing less time from work. More than one-quarter have reported improved ability to attend job-related educational training, Wishard said.

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