RALEIGH — John Bush didn’t pioneer the idea of refurbishing donated cars to help low-income families get on the road, and on their feet. Nor did he invent a program to help people escape their troubled pasts and find work.
But over more than a decade, Bush has changed the lives of many needy families by vastly expanding the services offered by two area nonprofits devoted to helping them get a foothold: the StepUp Ministry, where he pioneered a program that puts hundreds of people to work every year, and Wheels4Hope, which has tripled the number of cars it places in the four years he has led the organization.
“John has been a quiet and unrecognized figure in the Wake County and RTP nonprofit community,” says Ken Kaufher, a former board president at StepUp. “His leadership has resulted in turnarounds of hundreds of families and thousands of individuals.”
When Bush took over StepUp in 2000, he took a drastic pay cut from his job as a consultant who helped churches across the state raise money for building projects. A former pastor, Bush says he was answering a call to serve.
“I felt a yearning to be engaged in work that provided direct support to people going through difficult times in life,” he says, “to give them an opportunity for change and empowerment.”
One of those people is La’Shawn Boykin of Raleigh, a 33-year-old mother of three who was unemployed and plagued by an abusive past and a criminal record when she entered the StepUp program in 2010. She credits the program with helping her appreciate, and realize, her own potential.
Now a full-time employee of Wheels4Hope, Boykin tracks donated cars as they are fixed up and either sold or “blessed,” as the group calls it when it matches a car to someone who needs it.
“The joy you see on those people’s faces when they see those cars for the first time, it’s really humbling,” says Boykin. “The whole experience has changed me drastically.”
Questions, not answers
Bush traces his impulse to serve back to his father, a medical missionary who helped open a hospital in post-World War II Japan.
He grew up in the industrial city of Osaka, where he watched the fledgling hospital grow. The family moved back to the United States when he was in the 10th grade.
The culture shock of moving to Nashville, Tenn., was compounded by a school that was much larger than the small, private schools he attended in Japan. Bush says he found his niche by playing sports, especially basketball and baseball.
The family’s next stop was Augusta, Ga., where they experienced another shock: his father’s sudden death of a heart attack.
Bush went on to St. Andrew’s College in Laurinburg, drawn by its small classes. He also found solace in his faith in the wake of his father’s death, and decided to enter the seminary after graduation.
He served as pastor of two churches, one in tiny, rural Maxton, the next in Raleigh. But he found the role didn’t suit his inquisitive nature.
“I like questions more than answers, and I felt that I had taken vows to represent answers,” he says.
He spent some time exploring possibilities, even working at a grocery store before he started working with a friend helping churches raise money. He did that for 15 years, and enjoyed the work, which was meaningful and constantly presented new challenges.
“Raising money is always about building relationships and creating communities,” he says.
Helping people move forward
It was through that work that he became acquainted with White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, which had started the StepUp Ministry, at that time a life skills program that served a couple of dozen people a year through weekly meetings on personal finance and other topics.
He applied to direct the program at a time when its leaders were looking to expand it. During this tenure, that program grew to serve more than 30 families a year.
In addition, the group started a more intense job placement program modeled after one in Washington, D.C. Participants go through one-on-one counseling, courses on resume development and information sessions – and receive scores on their performance.
Each participant must reach a minimum score to earn help in finding a job with participating employers. Many participants are struggling with more than unemployment; addiction, spousal abuse and criminal pasts are often holding them back.
“A person pretty quickly has to come to terms with their own responsibility to move forward,” he says. “Then there would be some open doors for them.”
After seven years, though, he felt he was out of fresh ideas for StepUP. He moved on to Wheels4Hope, where his vision is simple: expand on a winning concept.
“We’re providing transportation to people who are moving forward with their lives,” he says. “And it takes something someone doesn’t want anymore and gives it back to someone else who does.”
31 days, 31 cars
Wheels4Hope was started by members of West Raleigh Presbyterian Church. Recipients of the cars are carefully screened by the agencies who refer them, to make sure they need and will be able to maintain a car.
Their volunteer mechanics do any major work needed, often replacing the brakes and other parts.
Once a recipient attends a Wheels4Hope orientation and raises $500 of his or her own money to invest in the car, the group aims to match them with a car within six weeks.
“If we have somebody who is ready for a car, every day they wait is one they spend hours on the bus or having to arrange rides from friends, or jeopardizing their work because they may not be able to get in that day,” he says.
His goal at Wheels4Hope is to expand the Raleigh-based nonprofit into a statewide operation.
In four years, he has started on that path. Last year, the group opened a garage in Greensboro that gave away 35 cars and began matching Durham residents with cars.
The Raleigh garage gave away a car each of the 31 days in December – a remarkable feat for a group that gave away 35 cars in all of 2008.
In all, Wheels4Hope gave away 115 cars last year. And last week saw Bush on the road in Rocky Mount, taking to church communities there about Wheels4Hope.
Wheels4Hope and StepUp are similar, Bush says, in that they both had a strong foundation upon which he could build. And they both aim to make a lasting difference.
“Many of us are fortunate in life to have communities of support: family, friends, a neighborhood association, a faith community,” he says. “But there are people out there who have none of those, and when you’re struggling with something, you need that support.”
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