When Angie Angerman’s 12-year-old Dodge Magnum died last year, it wasn’t just a hassle and financial hit. It was a disaster, upending everything in her precariously balanced life.
As a single mother of two, who works part-time while juggling classes at Santa Rosa Junior College, she couldn’t come even close to paying $1,000 to get the car back on the road.
“It was a nightmare,” she said.
She was forced to get up at 5:30 in the morning to get her 2 1/2-year-old daughter to day care by 8 a.m. The journey entailed a trip from her Rincon Valley bus stop to the Downtown Transit Mall, where she would then have to wait an hour for a county bus to get her to the day care. She would then have to wait another 45 minutes for a bus that would get her to Santa Rosa Junior College. She would have to do it in reverse at the end of the day.
Weekends were even worse. She had to get to her job as assistant manager for a storage facility on Sebastopol Road but also get her daughter to a day care downtown, with fewer buses running. She found herself frequently walking and losing weight.
“I was spending four to six hours on the bus every day. I’m grateful for public transit, but it’s hard to do anything when you’re a parent and you’ve got to work and go to school to survive,” she said. “I felt like I was doing all this work and I couldn’t get a break.”
But relief came when a counselor at CalWORKS, which oversees a welfare to work program for single parents at Santa Rosa Junior College, told her about a little-known auto shop on Santa Rosa Avenue that repairs cars for free for single mothers working hard to pull themselves out of poverty.
For the past year, SAL Auto has operated largely under the radar. It is the brainchild of Matthew Nalywaiko, a 35-year-old Santa Rosa man who for the past eight years has dedicated his entrepreneurship to help others. In 2009, he founded a local nonprofit he called Serve a Little, which marshaled an army of professional tradesmen, mechanics and skilled handymen, to help low-income single mothers and military wives with home and auto repairs. The organization also took donated cars and refurbished them for needy moms.
“We were spread very thin being an all-volunteer organization. We leaned toward the greatest need and the greatest need was automotive repair, particularly for single moms,” said Nalywaiko,
Without working wheels a young mom barely making ends meet can’t get kids to school and day care, to jobs, medical appointments and college classes to lift themselves out of poverty. So he shifted gears and set about figuring out how to keep more struggling mothers mobile.
He put together a business plan for his vision of a nonprofit car repair shop, that would use the proceeds from full-paying clients to subsidize free repair work for qualifying single moms. A man in commercial real estate who Nalywaiko met in a yoga class heard about the project and offered to buy a building and lease it back to the non-profit at a huge discount to get the shop going. Then a whole village of benefactors stepped forward to renovate a former motorcycle shop on Santa Rosa Avenue into an enviable auto shop stocked with professional tools, lifts and four bays.
SAL is a full service auto repair shop, open to the public. On the outside, it doesn’t look any different than any other car repair shop. But on the walls inside are the painted words, “We Keep Single Mothers Moving Forward.”
“There was a study done, and it takes about three hours to go less than 20 miles anywhere in Sonoma County. If you think of a single mom who is trying to go to school, trying to get her kids to school, do the grocery shopping, run the errands and go to work, all on a bus, that just makes your long day even longer,” Nalywaiko said. “And these moms who are on the social service side of it have these vehicles that are just barely running. And most of the time when those cars die they just won’t be able to afford to fix them.”
Angerman said when she picked up her car from SAL, fully operational and at no charge, she was completely overcome.
“I started crying. They had just saved my life” she said. “Here I was feeling this despair, almost hopelessness, and then this amazing act of kindness.”
At the moment SAL works exclusively through the CalWORKS program at Santa Rosa Junior College and the YWCA, agencies equipped to screen potential recipients. So far the shop has been able to do several free repair jobs a month. As paying business increases, they are hoping to hire more mechanics to add to the one full-time and one part-time mechanic already on staff, giving them the ability to serve even more needy mothers. SAL is equipped to do most all types of repair work on every make of vehicle, as well as routine maintenance required of manufacturer’s warranties.
“Ultimately we would love to have 10 to 15 cars a week coming through here for single moms,” Nalywaiko said.
Amy Ethington, who oversees CalWORKS program at Santa Rosa Junior College, said success for students under her program hinges on transportation. If they can’t get to class, their benefits are in jeopardy.
“It can really change their whole approach to education. If you can’t get here, the anxiety goes through the roof for our students. The expense alone to maintain a vehicle can be astronomical. To our students who are parenting and going to school with a very fixed budget, thinking about the expense of car repairs on top of that is frightening.”
When Nalywaiko started investigating the idea, he was unable to find any comparable model in the country. Many mechanics will do some pro bono work. And there are organizations that donate cars, like Santa Rosa’s Crozat Family Foundation, which provides free cars to needy people who have “hit a pothole in the road of life,” as they say. But Nalywaiko could not find any shop in the country that was run by the same model, with paying customers subsidizing the charity work.
Nalywaiko at first didn’t get a lot of encouragement from accountants that he consulted. It was the CFO for Visiquate, the Santa Rosa company that Nalywaiko works for doing video production and marketing, who figured it out, based on his years of experience in nonprofit work.
Visiquate has supported his work for years, paying him essentially a full-time salary for part-time work, which gives him the time to run SAL Auto.
His teammate in life and on the job is wife Amanda, who runs the office. She brings a unique set of skills. She has a master’s degree in social work and has been a social worker for both the county and the YWCA, so she knows the turf from a social service standpoint. Her office is equipped with baby gear for their daughter Kadence, 8 months, who comes to work with mom and dad. The pair met when Amanda volunteered with Serve a Little.
“I’ve always had a passion for this work. But having Kadence really puts things in perspective,” she said. “I see how hard it to is raise her with a partner. Some of our women have families or close friends to help but sometimes they’re just on their own.”
The pair share a passion for helping others. They both laugh that their couple quarrels are always heated exchanges over the best ways to serve.’
It took a large team of volunteers, benefactors, and in-kind donors to transform the space into a full-service auto repair shop.
“We ended up doing the entire remodel for under $100,000,” said Nalywaiko, which for a shop this size is completely unheard of.”
Northern Pacific Power Systems donated 52 solar panels and the electrical work. MKM & Associates of Santa Rosa donated their services for the structural engineering. Nunley Engineering of Santa Rosa pulled together a team of companies to provide the asphalt and gravel.
Many of the professionals and businesses that help make it happen are friends of Nalywaiko, or connected in some way.
“People want to help. They want to give,” he said. “They just need the opportunity.”
A key player is chief mechanic Bill Paterson, who ran his own shop for more than 30 years a few doors down. He had long volunteered for the old Serve a Little. When the organization shifted to auto repair only, he closed down his business and rolled his tool cases over to SAL, bringing loyal customers with him. Paterson has a soft spot for single mothers. His own mom raised three kids on her own and when he met his wife years ago, she was a single mother with two toddlers.
He believes giving back is what we’re meant to do in life.
He recalls one single mom who was staying in the battered women’s shelter with her two kids, trying to get on her feet.. She was just getting ready to start a new job with her alternator blew and the car died.
“It was about a $400 repair. When she came in to pick up her car and we gave her the copy of the work order for her records she said, ‘Well how much do I owe you?’ I said ‘Serve a Little paid for the whole thing.’ She just broke down in tears and gave me a hug.”
Paterson said the cars that come in for pro bono work are typically old and very run down. Routine maintenance takes a backseat to rent, utilities and food. Once Paterson gets a car running, he gets the owner on a maintenance schedule to keep it going. SAL continues to accept used cars and refurbishes them for need moms.
Nalywaiko, who struggled with dyslexia and ADD growing up, wondered as a young man how he would ever find a place in the world. Now he feels comfortable that he has found his calling.
He also works with a service project he created, “80 for Haiti,” which raised money to build schools the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. It takes $80,000 to build a school for 400 students. Nalywaiko provides the support and oversight team but hires locals to do the work, providing them income and skills-building.
He also did volunteer work in hospitals and orphanages in India and helped build houses in Mexico.
“I saw how much of the world lives and I couldn’t just go back to a regular 9 to 5 job,” he said. “We have a responsibility, once we recognize there is a need, to give back to it.”
He said his favorite quote is from Martin Luther King, Jr: “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” It has become his credo.
“It’s really wanting to live a life of more meaning and purpose than myself,” he said. “And you don’t have to travel to other countries to do mission work to help people. The needs are right here, in our own community.”