Augusta Auto Auctions Help Clients Rebuild Lives

By: David Ibata

Willie Brown doesn’t hesitate to testify that The Salvation Army and its auto auction in Augusta, Georgia, saved his life.

“Alcohol, crack cocaine, marijuana – I was bad, there was nothing I didn’t do,” Brown, 54, said of the days before he was admitted to the Augusta Command’s Corps Salvage and Rehabilitation Center (CSRC). He was broke and living in his car. His relatives in Augusta wanted nothing to do with him. His brother told him to go get help from The Salvation Army.

The Augusta CSRC operates a long-term residence program. Brown was assigned to the auction yard, washing, cleaning and vacuuming cars and sometimes trying to get them started. “The auto auction was a big part of my (rehabilitation) because it kept my mind focused on why I was here … and to stay focused on God.”

Brown graduated from the CSRC in 2010 and got a job taking out trash and driving a forklift in the Army’s Family Store warehouse. Today, he’s facilities manager at the Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in Augusta. And he still helps with the auction – registering bidders, directing traffic in the parking lot and flagging a car when it comes up for sale. He’s even recorded a radio commercial, giving his personal testimony for the event.

“Whatever they need, I’m there,” he said.

Every Salvation Army command accepts vehicle donations. Many sell cars one at a time or work with private auction companies. Seventeen of the 23 adult rehabilitation centers in the Southern Territory hold their own auctions. They have the volume to do so; policy is to move the vehicles within 90 days, and upwards of 100 at a time go on the block three or four times a year at the larger ARCs.

At the corps level, though, few get enough vehicles donated to go the open-outcry public auction route. Augusta, serving a community of about 200,000, is an exception. Three times a year, it offers 50 to 60 cars, trucks, motorcycles, RVs, boats, golf carts and trailers for sale. It works hard to build its inventory, reaching donors through social media and its website, salvationarmycars.com. It also advertises on TV and radio stations and in newspapers.

Fifty vehicles were offered in the June 3 auction – from a Lexus, Cadillac, bass boat and cabin cruiser to a plum-colored 1974 AMC Hornet “that looked like it had been through two world wars,” said Captain Philip Canning, Augusta area commander and senior Kroc center officer. The auction “opens the doors to discussions about all the good that The Salvation Army does. We’ve started with people talking about the auction and have gone on to talk about the church, the Kroc Center and the social services office.”

The events take place the first Saturday in February, June and October. They’ve raised $2 million since starting in 2003. All proceeds go to the CSRC for lodging, meals, counseling and transportation for the 30 men in the nine-month program. The Augusta Command is an official dealer – Salvation Army Auto Sales – and a member of the national and Georgia independent automobile dealer associations.

Charity car auctions fell off several years ago when IRS rules on gift-giving changed. Before, a donor could deduct the Blue Book value of a vehicle; today, the deduction must be the actual gross sales proceeds.

“A lot of people got out of the car business because there’s a lot more paperwork now,” said John Sebby, director of development for the Augusta Command. “But we stayed with it, and very successfully. Donors of the vehicles like to know that their cars stay local and help local programs.”

Like the ARCs that do auctions, Augusta keeps a continuously updated list of donated vehicles on the internet. The June 3 sale emptied its lot, but by June 21, eight newly donated vehicles were already on hand for the fall sale. Auction coordinator Wendy Ford has her eye on a 1987 Mazda RX7. “The outside is immaculate, the inside is immaculate, and the only problem is it’s got a bad clutch,” she said. But it’s not for her; it’s likely to be one of the “prize” cars specially promoted and saved for the auction’s end to get people excited to stay for the whole event.

During a three-day preview before the auction, prospective bidders can kick the tires, look under the hood and turn the ignition key, but not test-drive the cars. “We’re very transparent,” said Paul Wilson, Family Store operations manager. “If the motor’s in the back seat – and it’s happened – we’ll tell them.”

Inoperable vehicles go home by tow truck. As for the driveable cars, for many families, the auction gives them a way to acquire an affordable set of wheels. “People usually don’t link cars and the Army,” Captain Canning said. “Here, they do. It’s a great way to get The Salvation Army’s name out in the community on a regular basis, and to get people to think about the Army in a different way.”