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Car gives woman freedom to grow

When former welfare mother Kathy Bishop got her used Toyota at a Charity Cars giveaway in October, she had no idea how essential it would become.

Or how independent she would feel now that she could get from place to place without relying on someone else for transportation.

The car, a battleship gray 1989 model, went to work with Bishop over the holiday season. To earn extra dollars, Bishop delivered floral arrangements for a St. Petersburg florist _ in the Toyota.

It was a job she loved.

"I couldn't have done it without my car," Bishop said. "It runs great."

Now, after only a few weeks in the flowery part of the business world, Bishop has new career plans. She said she will enter St. Petersburg Junior College in January to work toward a career in a business related-field.

Before she got the car, one of many given to people such as Bishop by a non-profit group called Charity Cars, the 28-year-old said, she believed she would be forever doomed to some type of low-paying job in a health-care field, preferably one on a bus route. That was the only type of job she had ever had.

Now, she said recently, "I know there is more out there for me." The mother of four children, ages 2, 5, 9 and 11, Bishop said she has applied for a job with a child-care agency that would fit better into her schedule than her previous job, which was at night in a nursing home.

"Having a car makes such a difference," said Bishop, whose previous car was repossessed when she failed to make payments.

Brian Menzies, the founder of Orlando based Charity Cars, hears stories like Bishop's every day. "The auto industry is poised to become heroes," Menzies said recently. Menzies relies on donations of used cars from individuals as well as auto dealers, which he hands over to qualified people who need a break. In 1999, Menzies hopes to give away 500 used cars throughout the state. About 150 used cars will go to Pinellas County residents who are clients of the WAGES Coalition. WAGES stands for Work and Gain Economic Self Sufficiency. The coalition is a branch of an agency that oversees welfare-to-work programs in many parts of Florida.

"Removing the barrier of transportation can dramatically improve a life," said John Allcorn, chairman of the coalition that has contracted with Charity Cars to provide cars to its clients who are attempting to make the break from welfare. "The coalition is happy to have found such an innovative way to have a positive impact."

Each car given away comes with free tags and the down payment for auto insurance. Also provided is free service for six months at a garage in mid-Pinellas run by the charity.

Cars carry three-year liens, which gives Charity Cars the power to monitor the recipients and prevent them from reselling the cars for cash. Recipients must keep their jobs to keep the cars. Menzies checks driving records of all recipients for drunken driving charges. Any future charge for drunken driving means the car can be repossessed.

Charity Cars gave away about 50 cars in Pinellas in 1998, Menzies said, and has not had to repossess a single one.

Bishop said her Toyota, which she thinks is beautiful even though the shine is about to fade, has not had a single problem since she drove it off the used car lot more than two months ago.

"The air conditioning still works and the heater will blow you out of there," Bishop said. Every day she drives from her Clearwater home to a baby sitter in St. Petersburg, goes to work, then picks up the children at the end of the day. The car never fails her, she said.

Charity Cars "is a great program," Bishop said. "It made a difference for me. I know it will work for other people."