The day the car won't start is often the beginning of a downward spiral for working poor parents in the sprawling suburbs of Silicon Valley, where a reliable vehicle is key to holding down a job and staying off welfare.
That's why hundreds have lined up for relief from Peninsula Family Service's Ways to Work Vehicle Loan Program, which provides low-interest auto loans for residents of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties with troubled credit histories.
Like other clients of the program, Wil Licon had a mounting series of obstacles, each piling on the other, making it increasingly difficult to arrive at work by 3:30 a.m. and then get his two kids to school: His bike got stolen. His 1998 Mazda spewed smoke and seemed to be "running on love, rubber bands and Band-Aids," Licon said.
That left his wife and two kids ever fearful of a breakdown after they dropped him off in the pre-dawn and then made their way back to their transitional housing unit in Gilroy to catch a few more hours of sleep before school.
Enter the gold 2002 Town and Country Chrysler the family purchased earlier this year with a loan from Ways to Work, which would otherwise have been impossible for the Licons to afford -- and daily life has been transformed.
"It's a van that I know will not falter on us," Licon said.
Licon received his three-year car loan of $8,000 only after proving to a volunteer loan committee that he had been employed as a truck driver for at least three months and could afford the 8 percent interest rate. Eligible recipients must be parents with an annual household income for a family of three of no more than $71,000.
They also must attend a 2 1/2-hour credit counseling session and are taught how to avoid predatory loans, improve their credit scores and open bank accounts.
"They wanted a rundown of everything," Licon said of the vetting process, including all monthly household payments and even "what we did for fun." Most importantly, he added, "they wanted to make sure we had enough to survive on. They didn't want to leave us broke."
Cynthia Rodriguez of Sunnyvale also appreciated the help she got from Ways to Work, when her 2002 Jeep Liberty needed a new engine and she had neither the money nor the available credit to replace it. When she's been car-less in the past, Rodriguez -- a single mother of three who works at a local hospice agency -- had to squander her family budget on cab fare.
"For me, I really worry about emergencies with my kids," Rodriguez said. "If they get sick or something happens at school, how would I get to them? That's really the biggest worry."
With her Ways to Work-approved car loan, Rodriguez purchased a gas-efficient Nissan Altima that "works really, really well," she said.
The local branch of the Ways to Work program, offered through the Peninsula Family Service agency of San Mateo, provided 51 car loans in the last fiscal year. That represented a fraction of the need; in the same time period more than 500 people inquired about the program and 220 attended a pre-approval workshop.
Wish Book readers can help. Donations of any amount will go toward raising $10,000 to help Peninsula Family Service provide more families like the Licons and Rodriguez with assistance in getting a car loan.
Siboney Rodriguez, a 38-year-old mother of three who works at a San Jose gas station, described herself as among the many in Silicon Valley forced to work around gaps in the region's public transit system. Rodriguez rode a bus for an hour and walked another 20 minutes to arrive on time for her night shift. On the way home, she often had to bum rides, because the last bus left 15 minutes before her shift ended.
But in early November, Ways to Work helped Rodriguez buy a 2009 Saturn Aura. The first ride in the Saturn was a joyous one, Rodriguez said with a laugh, with music blaring and a triumphant roll through a drive-thru.
"It's a big deal for us," said Rodriguez, whose husband works two jobs to keep the household afloat. "We've needed a car for a long time, and it's going to make things a lot easier."
Ways to Work reports that people the agency has helped, such as Rodriguez, have seen their earnings increase 50 percent after receiving the auto loans, and 26 percent said reliable transportation allowed them to advance their education. Those numbers are part of a 2011 national study of the Ways to Work program, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit that operates more than 40 loan offices across the country.
Marie Fox, development director for Peninsula Family Service, said the program gives people the relatively small boost they need to stay afloat. "These are hardworking people that are trying to get ahead and for very small reasons they're not getting there," Fox said.
Licon's story is emblematic, she added: "What moved me was it just took so little to get him over that hump."
HOW TO HELP
Donations of any amount will go toward raising $10,000 to help Peninsula Family Service provide more families with assistance in getting a car loan through the national Ways to Work program, plus financial education and credit repair counseling. Donate to Wish Book at www.mercurynews.info/wishbook or clip the coupon.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
To learn more about the Ways to Work program through Peninsula Family Service, go to www.peninsulafamilyservice.org/need-a-hand/financial-empowerment-services/loans.