By Mary Rose Madden
Down Baltimore’s Greenmount Avenue, across from a hair braiding salon and a crab shack, the lights for the One Stop Auto Shop flash around the clock, much like shop owner Jerry Greeff’s work ethic.
Greeff has been putting in his last days after working with cars for more than 40 years — and he’s done quite well. In 2016, his business had $2.5 million in sales.
But he’s been working long days for a long time.
“If a customer doesn’t have their car, I feel bad for them,” Greeff says. “They need their car.”
So he — and his employees — would work late. Greeff knows what a difference having a car can make in getting to work and getting kids to daycare. He and his wife, Pam, have three grown kids of their own. But the time he spent at the shop, and away from her, was really getting to her.
“My wife had given me an ultimatum — she said it was her or the business,” Greeff says. “It was a very close call, I gotta tell ya, but she eked it out.”
Greeff says 10 years have passed since he took his last real vacation and that Pam was starting to travel solo. So, they tried selling the One Stop Auto Shop, but couldn’t find a buyer who would run it. When you start a business and watch it grow for decades, it can be hard to let go of it and retire.
Then, the Greeffs had an idea.
They’d donated a few of their old cars to a local nonprofit specializing in auto mechanics. Why not donate the business?
“We didn’t want to close,” Greeff says. “We didn’t want the employees to lose their jobs, we didn’t want the community to lose it.”
Vehicles for Change is a nonprofit that fixes up donated cars while teaching ex-offenders auto repair. They sell the cars at low cost to low-income families. The ex-offenders earn their mechanic certificates, they’re placed in a job, and Vehicles for Change sells them a car at low cost, so they can get to that job.
Marty Schwartz, president of Vehicles for Change, says when the Greeffs donated their multimillion-dollar business, it was simply unbelievable.
“I mean it’s amazing,” Schwartz says. “It’s a miracle.”
And the benefits for the ex-offenders he trains are going to be plentiful.
“These are guys who have been to prison. They don’t want to go back to prison. They don’t want to go back to the life that they were in,” Schwartz says. “They just need an opportunity.”
In Maryland, about 40 percent of ex-offenders who were released from prison in 2009 were back in prison or under supervision by 2012.
Getting a job is crucial to staying out of prison, but those opportunities are rare.
“I been working on cars all my life,” says 44-year-old Nick Kuespert. “I’m just an old redneck. I love cars and that’s why I’m here.”
Kuespert is finishing up his training in the Vehicles for Change auto shop. He grew up in Jackson, Miss., where his dad was addicted to drugs and the chaotic environment rubbed off on him.
“I didn’t go to high school,” Kuespert says. “I dropped out in the eighth grade because when I was in my teens, I was a hardcore addict.”
But he bounced back and started a small construction business.