“The car was blown apart; it was in a billion pieces all over the shop. I’d never seen a car so torn up like that. I wanted so badly to see how it got put back together.”
Colton Saunders spotted the busted 1978 Monte Carlo in the lot at the City Life Center in Franklinton when he was 12 years old. Without that car, his life may have taken a very different course.The damaged Monte Carlo was one of dozens of vehicles donated to Youth for Christ’s “Wheels” program. The name has since been changed to “HireLevel Auto.” Founded in 2001, it gives teenagers the opportunity to learn how to repair vehicles. The fixed-up cars are sold for about $3,000 each; the profits are reinvested back into the program. (A donated car is tax deductible).
I met Saunders at the City Life Center’s auto body shop. He has been a permanent presence there for nearly 10 years. As a kid, he went straight to the shop after school every day and begged to be put to work. Saunders had to beg because he was actually too young when he first arrived; he was 12, and the program was meant for teens 15 years and older. But his excitement was infectious, and the staff allowed him to begin learning. Saunders was proud to tell me about the number of hours he spent at the shop. He was there so often that the supervisors had to create a separate time sheet just for him. It didn’t take long for his skills to surpass those of the older trainees. He simply could not get enough. “It gave me a passion to do something meaningful, to use my hands, to work on something and fix it. It gave me a good work ethic.”
HireLevel Auto is about more than just teaching kids mechanical skills. Saunders also talked about how the program gave him a sense of community. “There’s a good family environment here, good unity and good trust. There’s a sense of security. It’s something to look forward to.”
That’s a sentiment Youth for Christ executive director Scott Arnold echoes. “The greatest deficit in an urban neighborhood is not economic. It’s relational. Most of these kids (at the City Life Center) grew up with huge relational deficits; they grew up without dads, or they’re not close with their mothers. They don’t feel emotionally secure. We want to help the kids connect, and give them a restored sense of community.”
Saunders, who is now 23, currently works as Head Technician at HireLevel Auto. He was very matter-of-fact when I asked him what he might be doing had he not gotten involved with the program. Saunders believes he’d have a couple of kids, and would be unemployed. He says his family did not instill any sense of responsibility in him. “I had a whole family unit– Mom, Dad, Grandma and two younger sisters. But there was no authority. I could stay out as long as I wanted and no one would yell at me. My mom was always out partying, and my dad and grandma worked all the time.” Saunders told me the City Life Center felt like his real home. “My house was just a place to sleep.”
Saunders now dedicates his time to training and mentoring teenagers in the program. He could be earning higher wages as a full-time mechanic; Saunders chooses to stay because of his desire to give back. “Wheels gave me direction, it gave me a future to look forward to… I could care less about making a whole bunch of money. My bills are paid. I want to stay because I know what the program did for me, and I want to help others through it.”
Oh, and the destroyed Monte Carlo that served as Saunders’ motivation to get involved in the program? It’s still there, hanging from the ceiling. Students spent six years on repairs, and it’s now on display as the shop’s show car.