by Chris Chase
Coastal Journal staff
WISCASSET — A local family in need will be receiving a new car this Thanksgiving as a part of Atlantic Motorcar’s annual Keep a Family Rolling promotion.
The project, which started in 2009, is the brainchild of Bruce Howes, the owner of Atlantic Motorcar. He received the idea initially when a separate organization approached him about giving them an old car. At the time they had no cars available to give away, but the idea never went away.
Now, they run a promotion every year where a family in need can be nominated, and the winner, which is chosen by the staff of Atlantic Motorcar, receives a car for one dollar.
“We had somebody call from a social service agency asking about a car for a client,” said Howes. “We didn’t have a car at that time to give to somebody, and I said ‘maybe that’d be a cool idea, we should think about that.’”
Howes said that the initial idea coincided with the Cash for Clunkers program that was put on by the government, which allowed people to return used cars for a set price regardless of the condition. Those cars were then legally required to be destroyed.
“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it have been cool to take those cars and give them to somebody instead?’” said Howes.
Eventually, they found a way to donate a car. Each year, they take their oldest “loaner” car, which is a car given to customers who need transportation, and sell it to some deserving family for one dollar.
“It has to be one dollar to be considered a legal sale,” said Howes. “Typically, we just absorb the cost ourselves anyway.”
The car is first given a full inspection and has the necessary repairs done. Then, the eventual winner of the car will receive a full year’s maintenance alongside their new car.
Alongside the maintenance and the car itself, the car will also come with a gift certificate to allow the family to purchase the thanksgiving dinner of their choice.
According to Howes, prior to the giveaway the company had already been working with charity organizations, but wanted to do something that could impact a family strongly and that the whole staff could get involved with. Each year, the entire staff meets to review all of the proposals and consider the candidates. They have all signed confidentiality agreements to ensure the privacy of those nominated, as well.
“I’m a big believer in helping people improve their lives,” said Howes. He feels that a car can improve the life of someone who needs it and enable to better their lives on their own. “I believe in hand-ups rather than hand-outs.”
Typically, the winner of the award is someone who receives multiple nominations, gives back to the community, and can drive and afford to receive a car. With registration, taxes, insurance, and fuel costs to consider in, the staff makes sure that the family can actually benefit from a car and won’t end up being burdened by it.
“It doesn’t always have to be a family,” said Howes. “It can be an individual, however we feel like we’re helping more people if it’s a whole family.”
Howes said there is typically a pattern that emerges, where multiple people all come out and nominate someone for their hard work and personality.
“There’s some pretty heart-rending stories, and it’s a tough thing to decide what to do,” said Howes. “Many times we wish we had two or three cars.”
Typically, the cars that they give away are higher mileage Volvos that have been maintained at their facilities throughout their lifespan.
“Rather than just selling our cars,” said Howes, “the three or four or five thousand dollars we may get for selling it means a lot more to a family.”
They also try to restrict the winners to the midcoast area, if only to ensure that the family can afford to go to their service center to receive free maintenance. If they award it to someone too distant, they can’t follow up with them and ensure they can get the maintenance they need.
According to Howes, they plan on giving away a car on every Thanksgiving for the foreseeable future.
“As long as I’m the owner, we’ll continue it,” said Howes. “It’s good to, if you can, help someone else.”