Free Cars Drive Hopes of 3 Women


At age 44, Helen Ortiz finally got her first car.

She hasn’t exactly been looking for one, because on her budget she knows she can’t afford to buy a car.

But then a county job-placement program offered her a free car Thursday as part of a countywide effort to provide transportation for lower-income residents.

And she promptly burst into tears.

“I’m overwhelmed, excited and speechless,” Ortiz said. “I got a job and a car in one week.”


On Thursday morning, Ortiz was one of three single mothers who shed tears when presented with the keys to one of three cars--a Ford Ranger, an Oldsmobile or a Mercury Sable station wagon, each about 10 years old.

The dealership also paid the down payment on the car insurance, about $100 each, leaving the women with about $50 a month in insurance. And each car has a six-month warranty.

For the past year, Ortiz has been part of a CalWORKS program that puts participants through an unpaid work experience program to help them gain real world skills. Last week Ortiz landed a full-time position with the Oxnard Intake and Eligibility Center as an office support worker.

But she and family members had been fretting about how she would get to work.

“I would just have to walk everywhere,” she said. “My feet are tired from walking so much.”

Ortiz’s mother, Angie, said the new car was a “miracle” for the family. “My son and I were so worried about how she would get to work. I was praying and praying for her and then a car just came to her.”

She said Ortiz had attended college several years ago, but dropped out because she couldn’t find transportation to and from school.


The genesis of the car giveaway came about when the Oxnard Chamber of Commerce teamed with CalWORKS after hearing a CalWORKS presentation on getting the private sector involved in eliminating the two major barriers to employment--child care and transportation.

Phil Greenwood, general manager of the Lincoln Mercury of Oxnard dealership, heard about the transportation dilemma and stepped forward with an offer.

“I thought donating three cars would be a nice thing to do,” Greenwood said. “So I looked for decent trade-ins that were in good shape and not worth more than a certain dollar amount.”

He described the gesture as a Christmas present for needy families. “I have kids too and I know it’s hard to do what these women are doing.”

Once the cars were donated, county Supervisor Kathy Long took over by helping match the cars with needy individuals from the CalWORKS programs. Her office conducted interviews and screened applicants.


Long said she picked Ortiz because “she worked at my son’s school and I knew she needed a car to move onto a paid job.”


Long described Ortiz as “bright, with a good work ethic. She’s the kind of person you want to give the extra help to.”

Holly Cheim was the recipient of the Oldsmobile. Cheim had come to Camarillo from Vietnam about 10 years ago to make a better life for herself and her two daughters, ages 13 and 10. She works part time at St. John’s Hospital as a file clerk.

“When they offered me the car I was suspicious, because I didn’t fill out any paperwork to win a car,” she said. “I wasn’t sure that I wanted it because I’d have to [make payments] each month.”

When she learned she would be getting the car outright, she was thrilled.

“I am so excited,” Cheim said. “I want to drive to San Diego to visit my parents.”

CalWORKS and the dealership had wanted the giveaway to be a surprise, but word leaked out and only one of the three, Shelley Decker, was truly surprised.

“I didn’t have any idea what we were here for, I thought maybe we were picking something up,” Decker, a Camarillo resident, said while sitting on a couch in the dealership before the celebration began. “Now I have a car to drive my kids around and get back and forth to work.”


Decker is getting her degree in accounting at Oxnard College, and is a participant in the CalWORKS program on campus. She is also working part time as an assistant for AIM, which provides marriage and family counseling.


“On Tuesday she got her kids legally back from her ex-husband, yesterday she got the keys to her new house and today she gets the keys to a car,” said Laura Burwick, an entering project specialist at Oxnard College. “She’s still in shock.”

Decker looked stunned and unable to say much. But she did say she would head straight to where her children were staying to show them her new car.

“They will be so tickled.”