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Minister who got her mechanic degree marks 10 years fixing cars for people in need

Cathy Heying founded The Lift Garage in 2013 to help car owners who couldn't afford expensive repairs.


This story originally aired in 2014. 

Founder of The Lift Garage, Cathy Heying, is marking the business' 10th anniversary in a new location, now with 15 employees and five service bays.  

The former pastoral minister says her mission hasn't changed, as she's still helping people who can't afford to fix their cars at a traditional shop. Just 14 percent of Lift's budget is generated through repair fees — the rest comes from grants and private donations.

If you need help or would like to help, you can find more information about The Lift Garage by clicking here. 


You'll find Twin Cities auto repair shops that specialize in mufflers or transmissions, but only one devoted to Cathy's mission.

By any good logic, Cathy Heying has no business being flat on her back, removing the rusted shocks from a 10-year-old Saturn.

"I'd never drained a radiator. I'd never put in a battery. I'd never done any of this," she said with a smile.

Heying spent her career doing social work. She holds a master's degree in pastoral ministry and works as a human rights advocate at St. Stephen's Human Services. It was there she had her light bulb moment.

"I just kept running into people with some version of the same story over and over again," she said.

The people Heying spoke of were poor. In some cases, they were also desperate after their old cars — the only kind they could afford — broke down, requiring costly repairs.

Heying saw the vicious cycle that followed.

"'I need my car to get to work. I can't get to work. I miss work too many days in a row. I'm going to lose my job. If I lose my job, I'm not going to be able to pay my rent and I'm going to end up in a shelter.'"

So what's a pastoral minister to do? If you're Cathy Heying, you enroll in auto mechanics school.

"These are impact sockets," explains Heying as she sorts through the fully stocked cabinet of mechanic's tools she now owns.

"I'm really easy to buy for at Christmastime now," she laughed.

Heying knew little about cars when she started down this road, but after two years and $36,000 in tuition — half-financed through student loans —  she graduated from Dunwoody Institute with an associate of arts degree in automotive service technology.

"We have to take care of each other," she said, "and for right now, the way that looks for me is The Lift Garage."

The Lift Garage opened for business in April 2013 in a space Heying rented at Dan's Nicollet Car Wash in south Minneapolis. She opened one day a week initially, but recently hired another Dunwoody grad, John Buttner, as her first full-time mechanic, allowing Heying to be open for business Wednesday through Saturday.

Customers meeting low-income thresholds pay for parts and $15 an hour for labor. At regular repair shops, $100 an hour is common.

"If I were to do this at market rates, it wouldn't be done," said Judy Hegrenes, whose car had been parked since May because she couldn't afford the repairs. "I absolutely call Cathy and John angel mechanics."

Heying opens the hood on an older Dodge Neon.

"This car belongs to an elder woman who is disabled," she says.

The Neon has been sitting for two years with repairs the owner could not afford.

"If you're living paycheck to paycheck, a $300 or $400 car repair can just upset the entire house of cards," said Heying.

Linda Granger was sent to The Lift Garage by a social worker. She'd been living in a 20-year-old Chevy pickup with a broken heater. The Lift Garage fixed the heater, installed a new timing belt, replaced the brakes and did other assorted work, all at the price of $600. Granger is paying down the balance at $20 a month. She says the same work would have cost her at least $3,000 at a regular shop.

"There's no way because I was unemployed," said Granger. "If it wasn't for Cathy at The Lift Garage, I don't know what I would have done."

With additional mechanics showing up to volunteer and other people offering to help in the office, Heying is hoping to expand her hours again, Monday through Saturday, later this year.

The pastoral minister is now paging through scripture with grease beneath her nails.

"Sometimes our job is just to get out of the way and follow where you are being called," she says.

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