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Cathy Heying’s nonprofit is surrounded by rubble, yet she only sees signs of hope and second chances.

The former social worker and pastoral minister started the Lift Garage in Minneapolis to repair cars for people in need and give them a boost in a time of crisis.

Now, in front of the shop, East Lake Street is in crisis after the unrest following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. A few yards away, twisted wire and charred rubble is all that’s left of an Arby’s and across the street Target is shuttered.

“It was dystopian,” Heying said. “I feel tremendously grateful we survived relatively unscathed.”

As the city builds anew, Heying, 49, is expanding the Lift Garage to meet the demand for services as the first full-time, full-service nonprofit auto shop in Minnesota. This fall, she hopes to buy the building to make it the shop’s permanent home and add a 600-square-foot office and lobby for the growing nonprofit, which has a $1.3 million annual budget and 11 employees who do 70 car repairs a month.

“They’re walking through the door in crisis,” Heying said of clients. “We’re big believers in second chances. We believe in opportunities for redemption at every level.”

Heying decided to remake her career after 20 years in social work, studying auto mechanics at Dunwoody College of Technology. Working with the homeless, she had met people living in their cars, unable to afford repairs.

So in 2013, she opened the Lift Garage off Nicollet Avenue, fixing four cars a month. By 2018, the organization had outgrown the space and moved to East Lake Street. Clients who meet low-income guidelines pay $15 an hour for labor, compared to $90 to $120 per hour at a commercial garage, and parts are sold at cost.

The shop loses money on every repair, which it limits to fixes that ensure the car is drivable and safe. The nonprofit relies on donations and grants to bring in the remaining two-thirds of its revenue.

But fundraising has become more difficult during COVID-19, which forced nonprofits to scrap galas or move events online. This spring, a fundraiser for the Lift was postponed and then scaled back, and a fundraiser in the fall at a brewery is up in the air. Heying is still seeking donations and hiring the Lift’s first development director to lead fundraising.

“It’s really such an important service,” said Susan Greenberg, a volunteer who helps raise funds. “They really treat the whole person, not just the car.”

‘Can I help you?’

As nightfall descended in Minneapolis on May 27, crowds filled the streets near the police Third Precinct. Heying paced outside, guarding her tiny nonprofit with friends as looters ran by clutching armloads of Target items. Two blocks away, AutoZone was engulfed in flames.

“Can I help you?” she asked a group carrying baseball bats, who scattered when they realized she leased the building. “I have no doubt that first night the building would have been looted and a lot of damage done if we weren’t here.”

Smoke billowed out of the Arby’s next door. But authorities were too busy, so Heying and her group grabbed hoses and fire extinguishers to put the fire out. Then they kept watch until sunrise.

The next day, they boarded up the Lift’s windows before the precinct was set ablaze and arsonists struck Arby’s again. This time Heying, worried about the escalating violence, evacuated staff and volunteers. At home nearby in Longfellow, she watched a news station’s livestream as looters tore plywood off her shop. She sobbed, thinking of the low-income clients whose cars were inside.

“This is it,” she thought.

But she was graced with a second chance. Another auto shop owner passing by saw the looters and chased them away. Strangers and customers scurried to the shop to stand guard until the sun rose again.

In the days that followed, Heying, her staff and supporters rotated overnight shifts guarding the nonprofit until violence subsided. A few days later, the Lift reopened, despite broken windows and stolen equipment and computers.

Heying knows other stores along East Lake Street weren’t as fortunate, and she hopes the city can rebuild again.

“I don’t want this to turn into a neighborhood of chains and high end condos. That isn’t East Lake Street,” Heying said. “So many of our neighbors have suffered greatly.”

So have many of her clients, who have few places to turn for car help and wait up to three months for an appointment. She’s exploring operating on weekends or opening a second site.

“There’s clearly a lot of unmet need,” she said. “We want to be a stable part of the neighborhood and part of the regrowth. We’re trying to be different — not just by charging people less, but how we treat people.”

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141