Giving vets a lift by giving them free cars
Former Army Spc. Brandon Figueroa's 1999 Ford Taurus was on its way out. Its brakes were going, its starter was on the fritz, and last winter it broke down in the snow as Figueroa, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, was trying to get to an appointment at the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
Saturday, Figueroa said he won't be sinking any more money into that car. He's got new wheels - a refurbished blue 2004 Honda Odyssey, a gift from the Recycled Rides Program. An initiative of the National Auto Body Council, the program encourages body shops around the country to repair, repaint and donate recycled vehicles to veterans.
At an event hosted at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 4927 in Centereach, 10 Long Island veterans - who served in conflicts ranging from Korea to Iraq - received vehicles and $25 gas cards from Long Island auto body shops participating in the program.
"It's amazing to know that people will do something like this," Figueroa, 23, of Patchogue, said moments before receiving the keys to his new minivan. "I could barely make it out of Patchogue [in the Taurus]. Now, I'll probably go down to Delaware and visit my Army buddies."
Ed Kizenberger, executive director of the Long Island Auto Body Repairmen's Association, explained how the program works. First, insurance companies - in this case, Geico, Progressive, Allstate and State Farm - donate a vehicle that is in running condition but has structural damage, he said. Kizenberger and other organizers then solicit local auto body shops that volunteer to do the repairs using donated parts.
Dennis Sullivan, the New York State Veterans of Foreign Wars inspector who is membership director of the Centereach VFW post, said organizers spread the word about the program on Long Island through veterans associations. In all, 14 veterans from Nassau and Suffolk counties submitted applications in June, he said. The winners were selected, based on their income levels, by a committee of local VFW post commanders. "I wish we could help more for vets," Sullivan said.
Joe Amodei, owner of two participating auto body shops, 112 Automotive in Patchogue and Riverhead Collision, was among those shaking hands with the recipients. "This is an incredible way to give back," he said.
Students from the Nassau BOCES Barry Tech Auto Body Program worked on some of the vehicles that were in Amodei's Riverhead shop.
Henry Sipila, 79, of Rocky Point, an Army veteran of the Korean War, was all smiles as he drove away in a red 2004 Hyundai Elantra.
"Without a reliable car you're standing on a corner or walking," he said, adding that he often suffers from pain in his legs. "To walk out the door and get into a car that goes is big."
Paul Ferguson, 52, an Army veteran of Operation Desert Storm, said his new 2005 Chrysler Town and Country will make his visits to the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center much easier.
Ferguson, of Selden, who is recovering from prostate cancer, said he has had to borrow cars or ask for rides two or three times a week to go to treatment at the VA center.
"This is a life-changing event," he said.