For people without reliable transportation, wheels can feel like wings.
Since 2003, the Tampa Bay-area nonprofit Wheels of Success has been providing and repairing vehicles for working families to slash hourslong bus commutes and miles of walking.
But giving away nearly 400 cars and fixing just as many hasn't met the increasing needs in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties: Wheels of Success can only help one in five families who meet qualifications.
A $200,000 gift from Bank of America could change that — and expand the charity's services further into the greater Brandon area.
Wheels of Success landed the award from Bank of America's Neighborhood Excellence Initiative last week, in recognition of the nonprofit's community contributions.
"We're really a broader part of economic development," said founder and CEO Susan Jacobs. "We're the last piece of the puzzle to get (people) to work."
The award, Jacobs said, will go toward adding administrative staff, which will in turn help the organization grow and assist more people in need.
Eighty percent of Wheels of Success' clients live in Hillsborough County, Jacobs said, but few reside in Brandon. It's a target area where Jacobs hopes to find business partners to increase its capacity to help.
"This is going to get us to the next level," she said.
Bank of America honored four organizations in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties with the award this year. In addition, 10 local service leaders were recognized with $5,000 grants to donate to nonprofits, and 10 high school students received paid summer internships and leadership training in Washington, D.C. The funding totals nearly $1 million.
"They represent everything that truly is good about our community," said Bill Goede, market president for Bank of America in Tampa Bay.
This is the seventh year the neighborhood awards have been given in Hillsborough County, and the sixth year in Pinellas County.
The Academy Awards-style ceremony for the Hillsborough winners brought more than 100 people to the Tampa Theatre last week. With cheers rising from the crowd, award recipients stepped out of black limos onto a red carpet and claimed miniature gold Oscars onstage with emotional acceptance speeches.
True to their passions, Jacobs and the other honorees spoke mostly about their work and the people who have inspired them to help others.
Jacobs recalled her own mother's determination to find ways to work, despite being a single, disabled mom without a car.
"This is not about just a car," Jacobs said. "It's about a change in quality of life."
For another Local Hero award-winner, it was about changing the quality of life in East Tampa. Like Jacobs, Evangeline Best, 67, started with nothing and grew her life's work into something.
The East Tampa native and volunteer for the Corporation to Develop Communities of Tampa spoke slowly at the podium. She worked for decades to make East Tampa safer, empowering its residents with job skills and championing race relations
"I am one of those persons," Best said, haltingly yielding a secret she hadn't planned to share, "back in the '60s, that marched to get inside this place.
"Today, I'm standing on the stage. I think it tells you I'm here because I believe in what I can do."
And the roaring audience rose to its feet.
Stephanie Wang can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.