In some cases, cars donated by body shops come with vehicle insurance, gas cards or gifts from local retailers. But in Kathleen St. John’s case, it also came with a job.
When Dino Di Giulio, the owner of Body Best Collision Center in Sonoma, CA, presented St. John with a completely refurbished 2003 Buick LeSabre in 2012, it changed her life in more ways than she could have ever imagined. For the last six years, St. John has been working at Body Best, a career path that began when she received her donated vehicle and her life started to improve.
Di Giulio founded his car donation program in 2011 after looking for a way to help the community and pay it forward via the gift of transportation, he said.
"I called my friend Jody Gatchell with A & J Collision to ask for help doing a car giveaway,” he said. “Jody had done a few, so I thought I would call the expert for tips and advice. He gave me lots of ideas, and I went to work on organizing my first car giveaway. But I was having trouble coming up with a name for my event---in fact, you could say I hit a wall."
A couple weeks later, Gatchell called Di Giulio on his way home from work and helped him find the program's name.
“He said, I’ve thought of a great name for the giveaway---Wheels to Prosper!” Di Giulio said. "It was the perfect name, and believe me, I was grateful for Jody’s help. The name also seemed like it could be something bigger than one car giveaway at my shop, so I thought, what if Wheels to Prosper could become an entire movement? The word ‘prosper’ means to thrive, and that is what we wanted people to do after they received the car---thrive and grow as people."
Things took off from there, and today Wheels to Prosper is a nationwide program with 60 participating shops.
"We get 3--4 new shops joining every year, and it's become a wonderful experience. All of the shops do their car presentations on the same day, the last Saturday in July,” Di Giulio said. “We wrote the program's map, and now many shops have made it a big part of their community outreach. We have helped single moms, teachers, military veterans and other people. Our goal is to find individuals who can use their vehicle to help others, and that is why we call it a hand-up as opposed to a handout."
St. John was in a bad way 11 years ago, she said, prior to when Wheels to Prosper changed her life.
"I injured my neck one day in 2007 as I was walking the dogs in a vineyard," she said. “Being who I am, I waited to see a doctor who eventually had to fuse four discs together in 2010 and shortly after that, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. I was in pain and aching all the time like I had a real bad case of the flu and an odd assortment of painful symptoms that didn’t go away. As a result, I had to stop my massage business after going strong for almost a decade, which really broke my heart."
In 2011, St. John's Toyota was t-boned and towed to Body Best Collision Center, where it was deemed to be a complete total. For almost a full year, she struggled with her health and did not have a car to get to doctor's appointments.
One year later, a friend and neighbor asked her if she had any hopes for a car, which she didn’t. He told her he was writing to his friend Dino Di Giulio and offering her as a possible recipient for Wheels to Prosper. She was asked to write up a page listing all of her volunteer experiences and give it to him so he could send it to Di Giulio.
After several other people wrote to Di Giulio about St. John explaining her situation and outlining her years of volunteer work, it all came to fruition in July of 2012 when Body Best gave away three vehicles---one of which went to St. John.
"When they handed me the keys to that vehicle, it was a complete surprise, and my first thought was, ‘How can I ever pay these people back for this incredible act of generosity?’" said St. John. "So I told Dino that if his secretary ever gets sick, I'll work for you for one week for free as my way of showing gratitude. I didn't know if he would ever call me back, but it made me feel good to offer it and I knew that this was the right thing to do."
One month later, Di Giulio called St. John and offered her a part-time permanent job, and she said yes without hesitation.
"I was praying for this and so happy when Dino called," she said. "I am an outside sales person and I love it. I go out into the community and basically meet people. We get fresh cookies from a nonprofit called the Teen Center in Sonoma. I give them to insurance agents and local companies, and they love them. The organization keeps teenagers off the streets and teaches them a trade, so Dino is helping them as well."
After receiving the car, St. John had to deal with colon cancer and then earlier this year, she lost her donated car when she was t-boned again on Lombard Street in San Francisco. But it didn't dissuade or deter her from her journey, she said.
"It's been six years now, and I love every aspect of the job," she said. "Everyone is so supportive and it helps me to reach out and touch so many wonderful people while representing a great company like Body Best. I've been blessed in so many ways in my 60-plus years on the planet, and this job is one of them."
Recently, Di Giulio found another vehicle for St. John, and after some mechanical work, she will be driving it as she continues meeting with people from Glen Ellen to Schellville on behalf of Body Best, she said.
"Wheels to Prosper has enabled me to give back to Dino while giving me a purpose and a mission, and that's why I love it," she said. "The goal of the program is to give people cars so that they can pay it forward, and in my case, it's done exactly that!"