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Renovated cars ease transportation woes for three struggling families

VALRICO — The Igarza family, the Garland family and the Chapman family have little in common aside from the fact that they've all fallen on hard times, but recently all three were presented with refurbished vehicles in order to lighten their burden just a little bit.

Allstate Insurance, along with Catholic Charities of St. Petersburg and Gerber Collision and Glass, presented the three families with transportation on March 13 — a luxury often taken for granted.

"Many times we think about housing and we think about jobs," said Mark Dufva, executive director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of St. Petersburg. "One of the most important barriers to successful employment is transportation. Many folks simply cannot get to their jobs."

The Recycled Rides program was created in 2007 when the National Auto Body Council was able to combine forces with insurance companies, collision centers and charities to provide vehicles for families in need.

"What we do is we take vehicles that have been donated, we fix them, and then we have the pleasure of donating them to people that those charities chose," said Gerber Collision Florida director of operations Steve Laszlo.

The local recipients detail stories of difficult times and strife in submission essays, but all mentioned working to make a better life.

Luis Igarza and his family escaped persecution and imprisonment from the Cuban government in August when he traveled to the United States and received refugee status.

Through Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement program, the Igarza family was provided with housing, a means to study English and Igarza eventually given a full-time job at Walmart.

Now, Igarza has a safe way to get to his job instead of riding his bike to his 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift.

With the help of a translator, Igarza showed his gratitude for all the help he has received.

"I give thanks to this country, to this community," Igarza said. "We're really thankful that we can continue with our lives."

Kathleen Chapman also gave thanks. The single mother of two daughters, one of whom has autism, anxiety and irritable bowel syndrome, relied solely on public transportation for doctor appointments and extracurricular activities.

Until March 13.

In September of 2010, Gary Garland and wife Cathy lost their jobs within a week of each other. Then they lost their only child. In 2011, they were able to find a bit of solace living at Pinellas Hope. After obtaining that housing, they we able to find jobs but their lack of transportation meant walking six miles every day, which they still believe was a blessing.

"This time last year I was employed and I was walking three miles each way," Garland said. "But it's kept us healthy."

For Cathy it was a step back toward normalcy, and their first adventure in their new ride — the grocery store — was something so often taken for granted.

"It'll be so nice not to have to get a taxi on the way back and be able to put things in our own car."

Contact Kelsey Sunderland at