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This month’s column is not trying to collect a donation from you. I’m not even trying to convince you to have a deeper mission for your shop. And I’m not raising awareness for my favorite charity. On top of that, you’ll have to read to the end to see the connection to our industry. But this is, by a long shot, my most personal column ever.

A couple of months ago, I was surfing around the web looking for a nonprofit to support. Generosity is one of our shop’s core values and I wanted to see if there was something out there that would spark our shop’s engagement with this value. I was also curious just to see what was happening in our city, especially related to helping people who were financially disadvantaged, which is just a politically correct way of saying “the poor.”

What I found was a bit startling. According to the 2007 U.S. Census, Cincinnati—the city I have lived in all my life—has a poverty rate of 23.5 percent, which is almost double the statewide and national average of 12 percent. That means that if you lived in Cincinnati, it’s twice as likely you would live in poverty than if you lived an hour away in, say, Lexington, Ky., or Dayton, Ohio. It also means there’s a one in four chance you would be living below the poverty line if you lived within our city limits.

The website described Cincinnati’s poverty challenge in a clear-cut visual form by putting a picture of our football stadium filled with people on the home page and a large caption that read “71,000 people in our city live in poverty. That’s more than the capacity of Paul Brown Stadium.” I’ve been in that stadium and it is enormous. To think that there are more people living in poverty within a 15-minute drive in any direction from my house than could fit in that building was a jarring visual.

There was another page in the sidebar of this organization’s site as well: “the 10 poorest neighborhoods.” I opened the page and started reading down the list. I knew about a few of the neighborhoods. They were the well-known places that most people tried to avoid for their own safety. As I continued to read, many of the places sounded vaguely familiar. Fay Apartments … North Fairmount … South Cumminsville …” Those three were all connected on the map forming a large, continuous band on the west side of Cincinnati. Right then it dawned on me: I was born in North Fairmount and lived there for the first five years of my life. I also remembered that my father lived in Fay Apartments and had actually met my mother in that neighborhood. I sat there stunned, realizing that I was born into a family rooted in one of the poorest neighborhoods of my city.

North Fairmount is also where my father taught himself how to repair and paint wrecked cars when I was only 2 years old. There was a small garage behind our home in North Fairmount that only held a couple cars at a time and a tree next to it that my father would chain cars to and do structural pulls with a “come along.” Teaching himself auto body repair from a book is what led our family out of poverty and into the four shops our family owns today. He started by fixing a handful of cars each month but now our shops combined routinely do hundreds of repairs per month.

This industry provided him and our whole family an opportunity in which to prosper.

Last week my shop promoted two young men who have apprenticed under more experienced technicians for
months—and in one of their cases, for several years. And as we promoted them into their new roles with all of the financial opportunity that creates for them and their families, I kept thinking of my dad. He didn’t need a hand out. What he needed was a hand up, an opportunity to better himself and provide for his family.

Providing jobs, training technicians and taking care of our teams are ways of paying forward what most of us have already received: opportunity.

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