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Dominique Foster, 27, of Oakland, left, goes over some paperwork with Fam Fakhari, right, owner of Auto Import Sales in El Cerrito, where she is looking to buy a good used car in El Cerrito, Calif., on Saturday, June 28, 2014. With the help of a new program that provides low-interest loans and financial education to people that qualify, Foster will be able to buy a car. Foster has never owned her own car and wakes up every morning at 5am to start her long trek via bus and BART to take her son to school and herself to work. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Bay Area News Group)

Dominique Foster is 27 years old, lives in West Oakland, and wakes up at 5 a.m. every weekday to start her long trek via bus and BART to take her son to school and herself to work. Most days, she returns home around 8 p.m., only to quickly eat and get to bed so she can do it all again the next day.

"It's exhausting," she says.

Foster, who drives a bus for special needs students, graduated with her bachelor's degree in criminal justice earlier this year. Her commencement gift to herself, she says, will be something she's never owned before -- a car.

The loan for the car came from a new program for residents in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

Ways to Work is a national program that provides affordable loans and financial education to people like Foster who need a car but have been unable to purchase one through traditional means. In addition to the loans and financial management class, the program assists participants in choosing a dependable, inexpensive car.

With a special needs son who requires numerous weekly appointments for therapy and checkups, taking public transportation is a slow and, at times, painful process for Foster. "Sometimes it's raining, sometime it's super cold, and being out at night walking through West Oakland doesn't feel safe, either," she said.

The program, which began locally in March, is open to residents of the two East Bay counties through the Community Housing and Development Corp. nonprofit in Richmond.


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The loans from Ways to Work are capped at $8,000, and applicants are put through a rigorous approval process to ensure that they have the means to pay off the loan, plus 8 percent interest, within 30 months.

A car, program coordinator Vivian Rahwanji said, gives people freedom to do more, and the financial class empowers participants by teaching them how to manage their money and pay down debt.

"It's not just about giving somebody a loan; it's about teaching them to be responsible," Rahwanji said.

With BART and AC Transit servicing the Bay Area, the options for public transportation are more robust than in other parts of the state, but they're not always reliable -- or cheap.

"When totaling up the transportation costs for me and my son, it's about equal to what a monthly car payment through this program will be," Foster said with a chuckle, adding that a car would save her at least two hours a day in commute time.

Before learning about Ways to Work from a cousin, Foster had tried twice to get a loan for a car and was rejected because she did not have an established credit score. She says she's never had a credit card, and the only loan she's taken out was to help pay for college. Each time she was turned down, she said, was heartbreaking.

"Sometimes their credit score is like 400, and nobody in the banking world will talk with them," Rahwanji said.

If they are given a loan, she added, they could expect interest rates in the high 20s -- possibly even 30s. A loan for $8,000 at 25 percent would cost nearly $3,000 in interest over 30 months. At 8 percent, participants will pay less than $1,000.

The money from the interest payments is rolled back into Ways to Work's operating and administrative costs.

In addition to the car loan, program participants can apply for a $1,500 emergency loan for car repairs and can refinance a loan -- with the same $8,000 cap.

Foster was one of the first beneficiaries of the program and is hoping to find the right car soon.

"It'll just be one less thing to worry about," she said, noting that her son is on board with the purchase. "Every time we go look for a car, my son says, 'Mommy, we need a car.'"