In September 1996, Tennessee implemented Family First, a welfare reform initiative. This program is designed to provide temporary assistance to families, while they are moving from the welfare system to self-sufficiency, through employment. One of the challenges of the Family First Program is to assist participants in the battle to overcome barriers to employment.
In Blount County, a suburban county located fifteen miles south of Knoxville, employment opportunities are good but the lack of transportation is a serious barrier to obtaining and retaining employment. In response to this problem, Steve West, a local auto dealer, contacted Ms. Carol C. Richardson at Tennessee’s office of Human Services to discuss their need for transportation. Together they developed the First Wheels Program in 1997.
Shortly thereafter, Mr. West appealed to the Chamber of Commerce Foundation to be the lien-holder for the vehicles involved in the project. He rallied local auto parts dealers and citizens to donate clean-up, tires, batteries and various additional supplies. His staff also got involved donating their time by providing safety checks. He even drafted an agreement contract to be signed by qualified applicants and recruited a local attorney to review the contract.
With the support of his automotive suppliers and others from the community, Mr. West was able to provide qualified participants with a used car to get them to and from their new job. The car is theirs to keep if they adhere to the signed agreement they have with Mr. West. The donated vehicles have a 24-month lien on them. If the participant complies with the guidelines over the two-year period, the lien is released. First Wheels participants must maintain full-time employment, provide proof of insurance, and provide proof of maintenance, in order to keep the car.
Since the program’s inception, Mr. West has donated a total of eight vehicles to Families First Participants. These participants have left the welfare system and are doing well in their jobs.