A group formerly called Free to Be, a Blaine nonprofit that gives donated cars to needy Anoka County residents and also does repairs, long struggled with its enigmatic name.

Executive Director Jim Huff said the words "Free to Be" weren't self-explanatory. People didn't immediately understand how the name related to the organization's charitable mission, which in turn made it hard to build awareness about the group. That was the catalyst for a rebranding and marketing push, "to lift up our message," said Huff.

The group is now Cars for Neighbors, a name it unveiled at a Sept. 11 fundraiser — a pig roast and wine tasting at the Courtyards of Andover. The event, which drew nearly 200 people including three of five founders, had the theme "A proud past and a strong future."

Cars for Neighbors also is planning a ribbon-cutting event Oct. 28 at the Meineke auto repair shop in Ham Lake, where much of the group's hands-on work takes place. Meineke donates space, expertise, tools and more.

Fifteen auto repair shops help get the donated cars up and running, and several local companies offer parts at a reduced rate. In addition, volunteer mechanics show up to repair vehicles during Car Care Saturdays twice a month. "That's how we're able to do what we do," Huff said.

The name Cars for Neighbors is more explicit about "who we are and what we're trying to accomplish" than Free to Be, said Huff. "We really wanted the messaging to show that we're helping people right in the community."

Those who benefit from the program are "our neighbors, with kids who go to school with our kids. They stand next to us in the grocery store aisle and they sit next to us in the worship service at church," he said.

The organization received $23,250 last year from the Anoka County Community Action Program (ACCAP) to undertake the project. Free to Be hired Nerland Co., a Minneapolis advertising agency, to develop a new website, logo and the tagline "Restoring hope one car at a time." The project also has included various print materials, an aggressive social media campaign and a broader media/PR plan that has yet to launch.

Separately, the organization has been able to bring in a part-time communications and development staffer to continue this effort, Huff said. Besides Huff, the bare-bones operation has a full-time business/financial manager.

An ongoing need

Free to Be was started in 2000. Its founders sought to eliminate barriers to employment, like transportation and child-care costs. The idea was to help people become "free to be independent, or self-sufficient," Huff said.

Back then, the group offered subsidized day-care services in addition to cars and repairs. However, the day-care part was short-lived because of budgetary constraints, Huff said.

The car side of things remained steady. Over the past 14 years, the organization has donated nearly 900 cars and repaired more than 3,500 cars for families in need. Last year the group repaired around 200 cars, according to Huff.

In the wake of the recession, donations dwindled — 2013 brought in a record-low 104 cars — and the group saw the need to re-energize people around its mission, he said.

The federal Car Allowance Rebate System, more commonly called "Cash for Clunkers," "took a lot of cars that would've been good for us" out of the marketplace, Huff said. Also, people hung onto cars longer, and more of the vehicles that the organization received couldn't be driven anymore, though they're helpful, too, as they can be sold for their parts, he said.

However, the need didn't go away.

In Anoka County, "having reliable personal transportation is critical to finding and keeping a job, taking children to day care and doctor appointments, and obtaining food and clothing," Huff said.

Lori Chaddock, business and financial manager at Cars for Neighbors, said the organization was created because people from faith-based organizations and social service agencies "saw the need for developing a safety net for individuals who fall between the cracks in services."

The county is unique in that the southern edge has an urban feel while the northern areas are more rural. Public transit is limited in some areas, he said.

Additionally, maintaining a vehicle can be cost-prohibitive for many low-income families.

One mom who recently received a car had been taking cabs to get her children to school. A dad who just applied for a car is walking 10 miles to and from work. The bus system doesn't go far enough for him. "We're hustling to get him a car as soon as possible," Huff said.

A couple of years ago, a dad was riding his bike in the dead of winter, late at night. "The people we work with are trying to better their lives," but it can be difficult in the suburbs without having a car, Huff said.

The group takes applications for cars and repairs on a rolling basis. As of last week, six people were waiting for cars. Minivans are especially in demand for families with several children. The wait can be a few weeks or six months, depending on the donations "and how many cars are repairable," Huff said.

Myles Engelstad, a Coon Rapids resident who is a longtime board member, said, " 'Cars for Neighbors' isn't fancy, but it does describe what we're about."

Engelstad teaches classes about auto maintenance and family budgeting for people in the Cars for Neighbors program. He is passionate about the cause. Yet with the old name, "I always struggled to tell people who we are," he said.

"We decided it was time. Either we had to change the name or we wouldn't survive. Our base was shrinking. We couldn't explain our mission effectively," Engelstad said.

For a small organization that depends so much on volunteers and donations, it's important to get the word out, he said.

'A touch of heaven'

Donna Hunt, a single mom, like many of the people who arrive at Cars for Neighbors, attests to the difference that the organization has made.

Previously, she was in dire straits, with a van that was in poor condition. The transmission was going out, and she had to drive with the heat on in the middle of the summer to keep the engine cool. It was always stuck in third gear, and "if I stepped on the brakes, it felt like the whole van was coming forward," she said. The windows didn't roll down, and the tires had leaks.

It was especially hard with a disabled son who is unable to walk long distances.

Hunt got emotional when she received a 2003 Saturn L200 from Cars for Neighbors in May last year. The car "was the last piece that turned things around for me. It gave me enough hope to get up," she said.

It has helped her to hold down a job, go back to school and drive her son to his doctor appointments. When her dad, who lives in Illinois, suffered a massive heart attack, she was able to make the trek to see him.

Hunt nicknamed her car Nevaeh, which is "heaven" spelled backward. "It's what I call 'her' because that's what I feel it is. It's like they gave me a touch of heaven," she said.

Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer.