Kristina Hibbert and her two children had been stranded alongside the road on several occasions after their Ford Mustang broke down. They were relying on rides from friends to get to work, school, appointments and the grocery store. Repair costs nearly drained the single mother’s bank account.
At a point when Hibbert didn’t know how she was going to make ends meet for her family, she received an unexpected phone call from the District 7 Human Resource Development Council informing her that she and her children were chosen to receive a donated 1998 Toyota Sienna minivan as part of its Wheels for Work program.
“I was in total shock when I got the call,” Hibbert said. “You never think these things really happen to people. The call came at a point when I really didn’t know how I was going to get to work the next day.”
Hibbert, her daughter Haylee, 12, and her son Elian, 7, were given the keys and the title to the minivan, fully loaded with leather seats and a sunroof, on Tuesday afternoon outside the HRDC office on North 31st Street.
Funded in part by the United Way of Yellowstone County, the Wheels for Work program is designed to remove transportation barriers that often prevent people from maintaining work. The program assists low-income individuals and families in a number of ways, including giving gas vouchers, bus passes, cab vouchers and limited vehicle repairs.
“One of the hardest obstacles for so many people is transportation,” said Michelle Robinson, director of development for HRDC. “Not having reliable transportation can really become a barrier for people trying to make ends meet.”
Hibbert applied for assistance with the program in October in hopes of getting the necessary repairs done to her car so she and her kids would have a reliable source of transportation.
“Anything and everything that could possibly go wrong went wrong,” Hibbert said. “It started with a gas leak, then the fuel pump, and then the catalytic converter.”
“And then the muffler fell off,” 12-year-old Hayley Hibbert interjected.
But, Hibbert, 31, was initially told that she was ineligible for the Wheels for Work benefits because she made $100 over the income eligibility guidelines.
“I make just enough for my kids and I to survive, just enough that I don’t qualify for a lot of help, but am right on the poverty line,” Hibbert said. “I think a lot of struggling families face this same position.”
But, when the minivan donation came through, HRDC selected Hibbert, among three other finalists, as a candidate that met the donors' requested criteria.
The anonymous donors of the minivan stated that their involvement with the Financial Stability Partnership opened their eyes to the transportation needs of families struggling to sustain themselves.
In their donation letter, they asked that the “van go to a working parent or parents with dependent children who have demonstrated interest and commitment to sound financial management, but who are struggling to find a way to balance needs with available income.”
“Kristina and her children are the perfect recipients for the donors’ requests,” said Tess Keck, HRDC director of communications. “Kristina has worked full time at her job for 14 months and demonstrates a commitment to working hard for her and her children.”
Keck said one of the most common misconceptions she sees is that HRDC assists people who don’t work. But, she said, for low-income workers in Montana, the wages alone often don’t provide enough income to cover basic expenses.
Hibbert’s good friend Teisha West said that Hibbert was discouraged after she had poured hundreds of dollars into the Mustang, only for it to break down again.
“But, she kept going and never gave up,” West said. “She really deserves this van, and her kids deserve it, too.”
Hibbert said she and her children couldn’t be happier and more appreciative. They spent Tuesday evening taking their new minivan on a test drive.
The kids look forward to driving to school Wednesday morning in their new car. Now, they say, they’ll have room enough to invite friends to ride with them.
The program is available to Yellowstone County residents with an income below 125 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. Applicants must be employed for a minimum of 25 hours per week and be able to provide employment and income verification.