The frigid winter morning you dash to your SUV only to find
the battery is dead; or the afternoon you're running late for
your child's swim practice and see smoke billowing from your
sedan's hood - these are the rare moments when many of us
stop taking our cars for granted.
For most Northern Virginians, cars are the literal engines
that propel their busy lives. But for those who don't have
them, especially if they are low income, day-to-day
obligations can be daunting.
"Having a car means being a reliable employee; it means the
ability to go to the grocery store and bring home a
reasonable amount of food instead of hauling bags onto
multiple buses; it means getting to doctors' appointments and
afterschool activities," said Sally O'Dwyer, director of
volunteers for diocesan Catholic Charities. "Without a car,
all of this is challenging."
To help connect low-income families with vehicles, the
Catholic Charities car ministry was founded more than two
decades ago by Father John O'Hara and longtime Catholic
Charities employee Harry Burke.
The program accepts working cars, which it gives directly to
those in need. It also recently began accepting nonrunning
cars, whose parts are sold to pay for advertising and minor
maintenance. All donated cars are tax deductible.
About 40 vehicles are donated each year, but demand exceeds
"There is a huge need," said O'Dwyer, who oversees the
To be placed on the waiting list, an individual must fill out
an application and meet eligibility requirements, which
include a safe driving record, the ability to pay for
maintenance and proof that the potential owner is low income.
Priority is given to working families with dependent
children. The ministry also attempts to match cars with
recent refugees and carless residents of St. Margaret of
Cortona Transitional Residences in Woodbridge.
"We are trying to give cars where they are needed the most -
to families struggling to get to doctors' appointments,
school and work," O'Dwyer said.
One such family will receive a car this week.
Tanya and her husband have six children, one of whom has an
undiagnosed tremor affecting most of her limbs. Once or twice
a month for the past five years, Tanya has taken her
daughter, now 17, to the University of Virginia Medical
Center in Charlottesville and to Johns Hopkins Hospital in
Baltimore. Her daughter's deficient immune system makes
public transportation too dangerous, and without a car
they've had to depend on others for help.
When Tanya found out her family would receive a car through
Catholic Charities, she was overcome with emotion.
"I was in tears," she said. "People just don't understand how
difficult it can be to not have a car. It's like a homeless
person waiting for a breakthrough. I'm so grateful that now I
don't have to depend on anyone else or be a burden."
Brian O'Connor, one of four car ministry volunteers, said
there are countless inspiring stories like Tanya's.
A carless woman named Casablanca worked as on office cleaner,
but because she had to rely on family and friends for
transportation she only could work part time. Eventually
unable to cover rent, she found herself homeless.
When O'Connor told Casablanca they had a car for her, she,
like Tanya, burst into tears. She'd been offered a full-time
job the week before, but couldn't accept it at the time
because it required a vehicle.
Now Casablanca has a full-time position and is able to
This simple ministry, providing something so many of us take
for granted, "is doing God's work," said O'Connor. "It is
helping those most in need and really making a difference."
"It's a beautiful thing," added O'Dwyer, "to hand someone a
set of keys and to know that their life will be transformed."
How to help
To donate a working or nonworking car, call Brian O'Connor at
703/841-3898 or send him an email.