Share this story


Helping Neighbors in Need, Four Wheels at a Time

From its thrift store and food pantry to direct financial assistance, the Lansing-based St. Vincent de Paul Society is committed to serving neighbors in need, however they need it most. For some, that greatest need is help with a utility bill. For others, it’s some new warm clothes.

But for a growing number here in greater Lansing, it’s something else entirely, something with the potential to be truly transformative: a dependable car.

In fact, there’s an argument to be made — and a growing body of research to support it — that nothing is more critical for those working to climb (and ultimately stay) out of poverty than access to a reliable vehicle.  

It is a claim that might sound surprising on its face, but access to an automobile provides exactly that — access. Access to better job opportunities, neighborhoods and schools. Access to health care, grocery stores and other vital community resources that help to support the overall well-being of a household. 

In short, a car offers an easier route to mobility — and not just in the kinetic sense.

 It’s a truth George Vollman, president of the St. Gerard Conference of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, appreciates and, as someone with over 50 years of combined experience in making and selling automobiles, it’s also something he felt uniquely qualified to help address. 

“There have definitely been times over the years when I’ve prayed to the Lord and asked, ‘Why did you put me in this position?’” says Vollman. “And at this point in my life, I think I finally have a sense for the answer: It was always to prepare me to take on this ministry. That’s how important this work is.” 

And as usual, the Lord couldn’t have been better with his timing. 

With used car prices skyrocketing in the wake of the pandemic, it has never been harder to enter the market for a reliable vehicle. With the entry point for an older model, high-mileage vehicle approaching five figures, the prospect of car ownership is quickly becoming further and further out of reach for many.

And even for those with a car, far too many find themselves teetering on the razor’s edge between well-being and insecurity. Nearly half of Americans have less than $500 in the bank, which means nearly half of us are a broken fuel pump or a particularly unforgiving pothole away from careening down the wrong side of that divide.  

From that confluence of expertise and need, the St. Vincent de Paul car ministry was launched in March 2022. And since then, the ministry has placed 37 vehicles in the hands of neighbors who desperately needed them. Each and every time, it’s been a life-changing event.

“One particularly memorable experience was working with a large family that had recently become homeless,” Vollman says. “They were housed at Homeless Angels and were relying on the one vehicle they had — an extended GMC Yukon — to help pull them out of a difficult situation. And then the engine blew. On a vehicle for which they still owed $9,000. Without help, that hole may have been too deep for that family to dig out of, but thankfully it didn’t go that way. Thanks in large part to an anonymous donation, we were able to take the Yukon to one of the 15 vetted service facilities we work with, where they were able to fix the engine and a few other things that were going wrong with the vehicle. To this day, those parents are still driving that Yukon, and have since managed to find permanent housing and jobs to support their family. That’s the kind of impact this work can have.”

To this point, the ministry has been conducted entirely by word of mouth. 

When a neighbor in need is identified, two Vincentians first make a home visit to assess the family’s specific vehicular challenges and gain confirmation that the neighbor in question will be able to afford the insurance, fuel and upkeep costs that come with owning a vehicle.  

Once that information is established, Vollman sets out to find an appropriate vehicle and the money to buy it. 

Between collecting the funds and identifying, vetting and ultimately purchasing a vehicle, the process typically takes about eight weeks. Finding the money is often the hardest part. 

Until today, the ministry has relied mostly on financial donations from the 21 conferences that comprise the Lansing District Council of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, as well as Lansing-area parishioners. Neighbors in need are also required to come up with 20% of the value of the vehicle, which immediately goes toward the ministry’s next purchase. 

By any measure, the ministry has been a resounding success. But for the program to be sustainable in the long term, it’s time to enter the next phase, according to Vollman. That can only mean one thing: automobile donations.

“If we hope to grow this ministry and its impact, we have to move towards sustaining this program with donated vehicles, and that effort starts with getting the word out,” Vollman says. “If we can start relying more on donated vehicles as opposed to donated funds, we could easily double or even triple the number of neighbors in need we could help. At the end of the day, finding the thousand dollars we might need to have a donated vehicle inspected and brought up to snuff is a lot easier than finding the $9,000 we need to start that process from scratch.” 

For those interested in learning more about ministry and how they can help, please call the St. Vincent de Paul Lansing District Council at 517-484-5395, ext. 102. 

“Anyone that chooses to donate an automobile is effectively changing the trajectory of a family’s life,” Vollman says. “With the help of the Holy Spirit, these neighbors in need that we are serving can pull themselves to a new life. It’s been an amazing thing to be a part of, and now it’s time to let other people know that’s the kind of impact they can have.”