Volunteer Driven by Data Helps Gift Vehicles to Families in Her Community

Daily Point of Light # 7628 Aug 29, 2023

Meet Daily Point of Light Award honoree Catherine Cole. Read her story and nominate an outstanding volunteer or family as a Daily Point of Light. 

After leading a capstone class at the Bush School of Government and Public Service working with a nonprofit called OnRamp, Catherine Cole hoped to become part of the organization’s board. Her wish was granted, and she became the first non-family member to join. OnRamp’s purpose is to help individuals and families of the Brazos Valley in Texas who are in urgent need of reliable transportation. When Catherine first joined, OnRamp had gifted 10 vehicles. Today, they’re up to 154.  

Catherine has robust experience with public service. She began her professional life as a social worker but later got an MBA and used her social work and business skills to work for an international relief and development agency, Catholic Relief Services (CRS). During her time at CRS she worked in 12 different countries. When she returned to the U.S., she became a practitioner scholar by getting a PhD in Human Resource Development.  

She’s so proud of the work that OnRamp accomplishes, but she credits others involved in OnRamp with inspiring her.  

“What drives me now is being around people who have similar values in order to live out those values,” says Catherine.  

You began your professional career as a social worker. What motivated you to become a social worker? 

What motivated me to become a social worker is that my grandmother had such a hard time in her end days. It didn’t really seem like anybody was there to holistically coordinate things and treat her as a human being. She just went from doctor to doctor to doctor, got on medication and then quickly deteriorated and died. And I thought there has to be a better way to care for people who are older.

Catherine Cole is the board chair of OnRamp./Courtesy Catherine Cole

How did you find the organization OnRamp? 

I received a PhD in Human Resource Development, which is like career development, organization development and professional training, and afterwards I did some teaching at the Bush School of Government and Public Service. At the Bush School, I did a capstone there which are these two semester courses that assign students a real-life organization and a real-life problem, and we got OnRamp.  

We studied the field of this automotive nonprofit, including variables like what does personal vehicle ownership do for a person. We found that it provides access to healthcare, it provides parents the ability to get their children to the schools they want their children to go, it allows people to go back to school or to get a better job. In fact, personal vehicle ownership is more closely related to finding a better job than a GED.

I just fell in love with OnRamp. At that time OnRamp had given away their seventh vehicle, and they were a four-member board, just a little startup, and it was chugging along and, and grooving. My husband and I were praying, I was like, “I hope Blake [Jennings, Founder and President of OnRamp] asks me to be on the board after the capstone is over.” Then, the capstone ended, and my prayer came true. And I said, “I don’t even have to think about it, I’ve been praying for this.” 

Describe your volunteer role with OnRamp. 

I was asked to join the board in 2019, and I sort of did a wide variety of different things because it was still a startup. I helped with policy writing and developing the OnRamp onboarding manual. I was still teaching at the time, so I supervised an intern who wrote the polices within the manual, and I was able to develop her as a professional. I served on the client care team, I conducted interviews. I sat in on making decisions.  

Then, after my second year at OnRamp I was asked to be the board chair. So now I lead the board, coordinate the board, professionalize the board and recruit and orient new board members. We just hired a client care director, so I’ll help onboard her. I help drive strategy, such as deciding are we going to go deeper with our current clients or are we going to try to bring on more clients? I attend giftings and speak on behalf of the organization. Recently we had a gigantic fundraiser, so I was there to thank our donors and represent OnRamp. I also help with recognizing all our volunteers at our volunteer celebrations. I have a fig tree, so I make fig preserves to give to the volunteers.  

I feel like I’ve had my hand in every little customer relationship engagement of On-Ramp since it was such a small startup, and now we’ve gifted 154 vehicles to date. 

What has been the most rewarding part of your work? 

For me being a scholar practitioner, it’s being able to take research, apply the research and get results. So, my biggest reward is when I can say, okay, we originally did this capstone research, we saw that vehicle ownership was linked to X, Y, and Z. We’ve gathered data now, and we know clients are reporting X, Y, and Z. For example, when we first measured savings accounts, our average client is a Black woman working full-time with two or three children with $40 in the bank, and then with a gifted vehicle the balance went from a median of $40 to $800. I started jumping up and down, that was so satisfying to see that pan out.  

What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer? 

I have learned researching this type of nonprofit, although I kind of knew it beforehand, how doggone hard it is to make good evidence-based decisions. But it’s critical. You better have evidence to show that what you’re doing with people’s lives is going to have a positive effect. For example, if we at On-Ramp did not take the care to vet our folks to ensure that they properly can take care of that vehicle, we could give it to somebody who could crash or hurt themselves or somebody else, or the vehicle could just sit in the driveway because they don’t have the money to buy fuel or insurance. So instead of being a gift, it ends up being a burden to them. Working with OnRamp, I think it was brought to light to me in such a tangible way, how hard and important it is to get measurable results. 

Tell us about future partnerships, programs or events that you are excited about. 

We’ve got a volunteer event tonight, and it’s super exciting because I remember when we got our first single volunteer and then later at a different event, we counted 60 volunteers for OnRamp. It’s so awesome. The spirit is really contagious so we will be celebrating that. And these other volunteers are part of two teams, one is the client care team and helping making decisions for where vehicles should go. The other team, they scour the U.S. for the best used, reliable vehicles – we buy them from everywhere and the cost of the vehicles doubled during COVID – and they will either drive them to clients or have them shipped. So, we would be unable to do this ministry without our volunteers for sure.   

What do you want people to learn from your story? 

I think what I’d like for people to learn from my story, and particularly related to OnRamp, is when you see somebody with their heart invested and passionate, get behind them. Blake Jennings the founder and the current president of OnRamp had given up a lot of his life. When it first began, he was a pastor at the time, and I think worked three and a half years as both a pastor and getting OnRamp off the ground. So, I knew I would be working with somebody who was fully committed and passionate. I loved that he did his homework first; he wanted evidence and he wanted facts. He took everything to heart, he took notes, you know, he wanted to do it not just as a fantastic ministry, but as an effective ministry. I was really shocked and saddened by how many people turned Blake down to be on his board and how long he had to tread water and before somebody would really get behind him and support him. And I think that’s what I’d like people to learn: when you see people out there and they are trying to make a difference in the world, you don’t have to go invent your own way to make a difference in the world, get behind that person. 

Do you want to make a difference in your community like Catherine? Find local volunteer opportunities. 

Bethany Schattner