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A Texas nonprofit is helping low-income people with car repairs

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Car repairs are never convenient, but for people who don't make much money, they can be a major financial hurdle. In Dallas, reporter Kevin (ph) Connelly from member station KERA has the story of a small charity fixing the vehicles that could otherwise drive their owners into debt.

CHRISTOPHER CONNELLY, BYLINE: About a decade ago, Manuel Tellez's truck was in pretty bad shape. It was constantly overheating.

MANUEL TELLEZ: It was just one thing after another, and I didn't have any money to get it repaired. So what I did is I went to a payday lender to take out a loan.

CONNELLY: Tellez borrowed a little over $1,000, he says. With fees and interest, he wound up paying $7,000 back to the company. And making those payments at the payday lending store, he noticed something.

TELLEZ: A lot of folks would come in to take out payday loans to pay for an auto repair. And that got me to thinking, well, is there anyone or any organization here in North Texas that can help people who need this kind of help? And it turned out, no, there actually isn't.

CONNELLY: The idea lodged in his head for years, and by 2018, Tellez had formed a new nonprofit. It's called Autocare Haven, and the mission is simple - fix vehicles for low-income drivers who can't afford repairs and can't afford to have their car break down. In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, nearly 40% of households report having difficulty paying their usual expenses. That's according to the Census Bureau's latest Household Pulse Survey. And more than a third were struggling to pay their rent or mortgage.

TELLEZ: What we're really providing is hope because when your vehicle goes down, especially if you don't have the means, if you're living paycheck to paycheck, you're usually just kind of, you know, in despair.

CONNELLY: Autocare Haven is still a small operation. Tellez runs it on top of his full-time marketing job, and the group has had to turn off its online application portal from time to time because needs overwhelmed capacity. But he's hoping it'll grow in 2023.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR STARTING)

CONNELLY: At a recent pop-up event in South Dallas, mechanics from Autocare Haven spent the day topping off automotive fluids and giving out advice.

DARREN BROWN: You probably have a small oil leak as well 'cause you got oil all over your motor.

CONNELLY: Mechanic Darren Brown says the charity doesn't do cosmetic work. It also won't rebuild engines or transmissions because it's just too expensive and labor-intensive. Other than that, they'll tackle pretty much any issue.

BROWN: Autocare pays for the parts, pays for the labor, pays the mechanic. You don't do nothing but sit back and wait for the vehicle.

CONNELLY: And having your vehicle fixed for free to get you back on the road...

TIM HALE: It helps out a whole lot.

CONNELLY: Last year, Tim Hale's minivan needed a new water pump. It was the latest in a string of mechanical problems on the red 9-year-old Toyota Sienna.

HALE: It was going to cost me another, like, thousand dollars to get the water pump done, and we just did not have it.

CONNELLY: Hale is on disability and works part time. His wife, Tamara, works at a pharmacy, and she also drives for Uber, so having the minivan out of commission meant they were losing income. So when the couple heard about Autocare Haven from a friend, Hale applied.

HALE: It was a godsend that they come in and fixed it.

CONNELLY: Fixing a broken water pump doesn't fix a family's financial struggles, but it can help them steer clear of an even bigger setback.

For NPR News, I'm Christopher Connelly in Dallas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.