The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Atlanta Civic Site supports the resident-led Community Investment Fund (CIF), which awards small grants to local leaders. This blog-post series highlights how recipients used their grants to improve the lives of young people and families in Atlanta’s Neighborhood Planning Unit V (NPU-V).
In this post, Larry Witherspoon, co-founder and executive director of the Automotive Training Center, shares how two CIF grants have helped expand career opportunities for young people in Southwest Atlanta.
The mission: The Automotive Training Center’s primary focus is employment, because it’s the number-one factor in preventing people from reentering jail or prison. We equip young people ages 15–25 who are on probation or at risk of incarceration with the skills and connections they need to start a career in the automotive repair industry. Beyond that, we work with them to instill three core values: confidence, work ethic and a passion for learning.
We want young people to leave the program with these three things and with the energy to focus their minds and bodies on everything they want to accomplish. These are smart, bright kids who just need someone to believe in them and help them see the gifts and talents they already have.
Program basics: Our eight-week entry-level technician program helps participants master everything from oil changes to tire replacements and vehicle inspections. Young people get hands-on experience with real customers, and they are getting an opportunity to earn money while they train for bigger career opportunities. When they complete the program, we connect them with dealerships and independent shops in the area.
We also have a drop-in program each Monday night specifically geared to local high school students. It’s an open learning environment where they can come in and get trained on whatever job we may be working on at that particular time.
Money matters: The CIF grant we received in 2014 was our first grant ever. At that time, Shawn McHargue, the other co-founder and the lead teaching instructor, and I were still working through the idea for the Automotive Training Center. That initial grant funding enabled us to buy the basic tools we needed and a trailer to transport them. We’d ride around to people’s houses and bring the students with us to service cars. Now, we have a two-bay shop where we can service four cars at once.
We used the second CIF grant in 2018 to launch an advanced training program in air conditioning and refrigeration service. It helped us purchase the equipment — which is very expensive — we now use to help students develop specialized skills that make them more marketable and give them the power to earn more money down the line.
Evidence of success: We’ve trained 40–50 students in the past four years. With the launch of our expanded programming, I think we will double that number. These young people are full of promise, and they just need the opportunity to hone and channel their talents. Seeing the lightbulbs begin to go off for them is a great privilege — it makes it all worth it for me.
Shawn lives in NPU-V, and I live next to it, so this really is personal for us.
The Community Investment Fund at a Glance
- What: A Casey-funded program that awards a total $50,000 in small grants, ranging from $500 to $5,000.
- Who and where: A resident board oversees the fund, which is open to community-based organizations and networks in Atlanta’s NPU-V.
- Why: To promote community-driven change by empowering residents to tackle common neighborhood challenges.