As a child, Michelle Kaczmarek watched her mom live a life of drugs and alcohol. And after her mom and step-dad divorced when she was 12 years old, she and her younger sister often didn’t know where they were going to sleep.

“I swore when I was younger that I would never fall into that pattern that she fell into, and I ended up falling into that pattern anyway,” Michelle says. “That’s when my life exploded and I decided I don’t want to be that mom.”

Michelle and her husband began rebuilding their lives with their four children, and she decided to enroll in college and work toward an associate degree. Then her car broke down.

As Michelle, who was making $15,000 a year at the time, found out, public transportation is an increasingly difficult option for many low-wage workers, as jobs move away from urban cores and former industrial job centers near working class neighborhoods, according to a survey by the National Economic Development and Law Center. Therefore, reliable transportation is one of the paramount factors in accessing successful employment, quality child care, affordable housing, and higher education.

After Michelle missed some classes, her husband was looking through The Reader newspaper and saw an ad for the Heartland Family Service Ways to Work program, which provides small, short-term, low-interest loans to families with challenging credit.

“All loans are repaid, so instead of handouts, Ways to Work gives families a helping hand-up toward a more stable financial future,” Ways to Work Program Coordinator Lisa Picker says.

Michelle “thought it was too good to be true,” but decided to call anyway and went through the loan application process. She has had her 2004 gold Ford Explorer for six years now, and her loan has been paid in full.

“Ways to Work is more than a car loan program,” Picker says. “It is a chance for families to begin to develop a sense of consistency, because the factor of ‘How do I get there?’ has been taken out of the equation.”

Michelle has continued her education, recently graduating with a master’s degree in Business Administration. She is currently working toward starting her own business.

“Even though it was just a vehicle they helped me out with, in a way they saved me just by showing there is someone, there is a program that cares,” Michelle says. “I just think the help Heartland Family Service gave us opened doors for us.”

Michelle recently received the Heartland Family Service Salute to Achievement Award at Strike A Chord on June 17, 2016. Watch her tell her story in this video from the event.