Nonprofit teaches auto repair skills at no cost to students

Student, Brandon Oates (left) and instructor Larry Witherspoon Jr. inspect a vehicle on a lift at the Automotive Training Center in East Point. Photo by Phil Skinner
Student, Brandon Oates (left) and instructor Larry Witherspoon Jr. inspect a vehicle on a lift at the Automotive Training Center in East Point. Photo by Phil Skinner

In a garage in East Point, Larry Witherspoon Jr. is changing oil and lives.

For six years, Witherspoon has been running the nonprofit Automotive Training Center on Sylvan Road, helping troubled youth find their path and a job in auto repair.

To date, he and center co-founder Shawn McHargue have trained 172 young people – some with prison records — in the basics of car maintenance at no cost to the students.

About 80% of the center’s graduates are now working as auto mechanics, including 26-year-old Lana Mayard.

She completed the center’s eight-week training program last August, and within weeks, was snapped up by a major car manufacturer’s Marietta dealership, becoming its first female mechanic.

“It [ATC] turned my life around a whole lot,” said Mayard, who was formerly homeless. “I cry every time I talk about what I came from and where I am now.”

Witherspoon came up with the idea for the training center in 2012, shortly after he moved into an inner-city neighborhood in Atlanta. He said he was struck by how many young men he met had either been in prison or were headed there and wanted to do something to help.

He’d grown up in a middle-class family in Cleveland, Ohio, attending private school. His father was a mentor to young men in an inner-city school and worked part-time at a juvenile detention center. But the positive influences of school and family were not enough to keep young Witherspoon on track. He landed in legal trouble and narrowly missed going to prison as a young adult before deciding “to make a change to live a positive life.”

For Witherspoon, that meant merging his two passions: the desire to help troubled young men and his lifelong love of cars.

Some students are referred to the center by the Fulton County Juvenile Court or state Department of Juvenile Justice. Others are sent by nonprofits with similar demographics, such as Hearts to Nourish Hope in Clayton County, Witherspoon said. Still others, such as Brandon Oates of College Park, stumble onto the center, which is No. 1 on Google searches for the keywords “automotive training Atlanta.”

“I was looking for a certificate or something that could help me get started in the automotive world,” said Oates, who just completed the program and is looking for work at area car dealerships.

He graduated from high school in 2012 and had bounced in and out of college, hoping to obtain a degree. But he ended up having to take a series of low-paying jobs to pay down his student loans, he said.

The training center is “really good for our community and the kids in our community — the kids who had been going through some troubles,” Oates said. “Without it, I’d still be working these dead-end jobs.”

The center has two programs – a four-week program for ages 15 to 25 on the basics of how vehicles work; and an eight-week program for ages 18 to 25 that teaches mastery of oil changes and some repairs, mostly through hands-on training.

Customers are aware that students will be working on their vehicles under close supervision from a certified mechanic, Witherspoon said.

The students aren’t paid during their training. But Witherspoon and McHargue make sure they have money, if needed, for gas, public transportation, and other essentials.

Mayard said the two men got her off the streets and into a motel while she went through the eight weeks of training.

“They’re very family-oriented,” she said, adding they gave her money to wash clothes and a daily wake-up call to make sure she made it to training on time.

“They are very, very helpful people,” Mayard said. “I don’t know what I would have done without them.”

Once they complete their training, students receive help filling in job applications, writing résumés, and practicing their interviewing skills. They’re also given access to an ever-growing list of dealerships and independent repair shops that hire entry-level technicians.

It’s all part of Witherspoon’s goal of helping at-risk youth stay out of trouble and prison.

“Repairing lives and repairing cars makes me very, very happy,” he said.

WHAT INSPIRES LARRY WITHERSPOON?

“When I started to meet young men in Atlanta and started to understand their risk for incarceration, I knew that most of them did not have the same support network I was afforded. How much harder would it be for them to overcome these circumstances without support? I pondered. ‘Nearly impossible’ was the answer. So I combined my passion for these young men with my life-long love of cars, and the Automotive Training Center was born at the end of 2014. Shawn McHargue and I met shortly after and we decided, together, to build an organization dedicated to training and finding employment for at-risk youth.”

What’s the long-term goal?

“The long-term goal at ATC is to provide the best training possible to our students so they may have the best chance at success. In the future that looks like creating a full-service campus that will train students on other areas of vehicle repair, such as diesel repair and collision. Also, we would like to open more locations for automotive training locally, regionally, and potentially nationally to serve as many students as possible.”

HELP US INSPIRE ATLANTA

We recognize a big part of our journalistic mission is to shine a spotlight on wrongdoings and to hold our public officials accountable.

But we also understand the importance of celebrating our region’s moments, milestones and people. That’s exactly what we hope to accomplish with Inspire Atlanta.

Each week, Inspire Atlanta will profile a person that makes metro Atlanta a better place in which to live.

Of course, we can't do this alone: We need your help in finding extraordinary people and identifying inspiring stories across our region. We learned about Larry Witherspoon from Mercedes-Benz USA. The automaker has recognized Witherspoon and the Automotive Training Center through its "Greatness Lives Here" initiative.

Know someone who inspires you or makes metro Atlanta a better place for others? Email us at inspireatlanta@ajc.com.

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