As a social worker, Cathy Heying did what she could to help people in tough situations. Often a vehicle was involved. “I kept hearing similar stories,” she said: Cars would break down, and their owners couldn’t afford the repair. Bus service wasn’t available. Without transportation, her clients lost jobs, couldn’t pay their rent — and sometimes ended up on the street.

Low-cost car repair “could prevent a lot of tragedy,” which led her to the realization: “We need someone to do this.” But no one was doing it, so Heying decided that that someone would have to be her.

In 2008, she got a student loan and enrolled at Dunwoody College of Technology, determined to learn auto mechanics. “I thought about maybe fixing cars on my driveway on Saturday afternoons,” she said. But she was out of her league — a 38-year-old woman in an army of young guys — and in way over her head. “I didn’t know much about cars,” she admitted. “The first quarter I cried regularly.”

Instructor Dave DuVal took notice. “I could tell she was anxious,” he recalled. Heying shared her vision, and DuVal resolved to help her make it happen. When Heying got discouraged, DuVal cheered her on. “I’d say, ‘Cathy, you can do this. Hang in there.’ ”

Two years later, Heying graduated from Dunwoody and took a part-time mechanic job, honing her skills while continuing to work in human services. By then, her vision had grown. Intent on opening a nonprofit garage, she began recruiting a board of directors. The plans were in their infancy when she got an offer to sublet a repair bay in south Minneapolis.

“We didn’t have insurance or a phone or credit history,” Heying recalled. “But my philosophy is, if a door opens, walk through it. It took us about eight weeks to get somebody to insure us.” The Lift Garage (theliftgarage.org) opened its doors in March 2013.

The need was there, and the Lift Garage grew quickly. Today it has an annual budget of $300,000, six full-time employees (one a volunteer) and three repair bays.

Customers, who must meet low-income guidelines, pay $15 per hour for labor, compared with $100 to $130 per hour at a commercial garage, and parts are sold at cost. Since it opened, the Lift Garage has completed 1,246 repairs for 642 customers, saving them an estimated $454,000.

The shop loses money on every repair, but makes up the difference with donations and grants. In addition to money, “Our big challenge is demand,” Heying said. The waiting list for repairs can be as long as three months.

Repairs often take longer than anticipated because “these are old, old cars that haven’t had maintenance,” she said. “Many of our folks with grinding brakes, by the time it gets to us, it’s not just pads, it’s pads, calipers, everything. A two-hour job becomes a four-hour job. Or we find 10 other safety issues, and it turns into a 10-hour job.”

One of the hardest parts of running a garage is having to tell people that their car isn’t worth repairing.

“Folks are coming to us in poverty and crisis,” Heying said. “A fair number have mental illness. Sometimes they get angry. We don’t take it lightly to condemn somebody’s car. I don’t want to waste money I know they don’t have. My conscience won’t let me.”

But on the plus side, it’s rewarding to provide a tangible service. “You get to see how you’re making a difference every day,” she said. “Cars are towed in, and they drive out. A small percentage of folks are living in their vehicles, so we’re fixing their homes as well as their cars.”

Alecia Howard-Fogg was juggling a toddler, two jobs and school when she came to the Lift Garage with a broken-down Honda — and was told it wasn’t worth repairing. While she was upset (“It’s a very stressful thing, losing your independence,” she said), she appreciated the honest appraisal.

She brought her next car in for a pre-purchase inspection. And after a brake adjustment, she was able to drive the car — and find a new job that pays a living wage.

The Lift Garage has lots of plans: adding a fourth bay this fall to reduce the wait for repairs; starting a training program; getting a mobile van to assess vehicles remotely, so customers don’t waste money towing in junkers.

Heying doesn’t do much hands-on repair work these days. “Quite honestly, I would not describe myself as a good technician,” she said. “It doesn’t come naturally. I’ve moved into the role of raising money and keeping the place going.”

DuVal, who serves on the board of directors, is still cheering her on. “Cathy never quits,” he said. “She’s always looking to help people, and she’ll sacrifice to do it.”