It started by accident, really. Their niece had to quit college in order to make ends meet for her family. She had a car to get to her first job, but then she had to take a second job in order to pay for that car. And John and Leah Sandlin weren’t about to watch their niece give up her education.

So they made a deal. If their niece went back to school, they would provide her with wheels.

John found an old, cheap car and fixed it up for his niece. With her more expensive car no longer in the equation, she was able to go back to school and graduate from college.

“We saw the value of reliable transportation in the form of a car (and how it) played in turning her life around,” John said. “She’s the first one in her family to graduate from college. I put a high value on education, so that was an attractive arrangement to motivate her to stay in school. … (I)t was easy to see how a little bit of transportation inserted into that equation at a reasonable arrangement really helped move the needle in her family.”

Once John and Leah saw how transportation played a vital role in their niece earning her degree, they wondered how many other people had the same story — like the one who just got out of jail and needs a job. Or the one who is trying to overcome a drug addiction. Or even the one who has multiple children and a husband who left her.

Out of this need for reliable transportation, Jeremiah 184 was born.

“We don’t want to give handouts; we want to give hands up, ” Leah said. “We don’t just want to give someone a car, and then they run around and do whatever they want. (We help) someone who can’t get a job because they don’t have transportation. But they want a job, they want to contribute, they want help or to get better.”

This help comes in the form of John and Leah meeting with someone who needs a car near their hometown of Columbus, Indiana. Then they work on a budget with them and do all they can to find a car, fix it, and pass it along to the client.

“A lot of times we’ll have an interview with somebody, and then the next day we get a donation for the exact car that person needs,” Leah said. “That’s happened two or three times already —  when we’ve met with someone, and then a day or two days later, someone out of the blue calls and says, ‘Hey, I’ve got this car,’ and it just matches right up. … Which is really awesome, because then you just know it’s God.”

John and Leah are not looking to make a profit, but they do desire each client to pay what they can for the car. They even set them up with an advocate who can speak for and assist the client should they need more help with their finances.

“In that initial meeting, we talk about budget because a lot of people don’t budget,” Leah explained. “(We) put all that together and come up with what is fair, so each case is individual. I explain this to the women when we meet, but I say, ‘We want to help you, and helping you is not giving you something for free. Helping you is giving you something that you need and then allowing you to participate in becoming self-sufficient. Because it’s not self-sufficiency if we’re just giving you something and solving the problem for you.’ ”

Self-sufficiency means more to John and Leah than simply a client paying for the car. When they have a new male client, they encourage that person to work on the car alongside John. This helps that person to foster responsibility for the car and for the people in his life for whom he’s providing.

And it also gives John the opportunity to share his faith.

“A lot of times, when guys are tag-teaming a common problem, the walls — barriers to conversations, to heart issues — come down, and they can share those together,” John said. “When they see me walking the walk or that I genuinely care about them and getting their car fixed and getting them reliable transportation, that’s important to them. … In a perfect world, we could fix the car and the guy in the same instance. … I think the top success for our ministry is to transform lives through the prop of the car.”

While some people have taken advantage of John and Leah’s kindness, the reward far outweighs the risk for this couple. They love getting to know people they might have never encountered otherwise, and they believe God can use this car ministry to not only help people with transportation, but also with personal growth.

“We want to help equip them to not go back to that old cycle of bad choices,” John said. “In an effort to break that cycle, we … come alongside them, get involved in their life, help them to either brainstorm some positive ideas or how to break those cycles. So, in that arena, we don’t want them turning back to their old drug dealer for help. We want them to be self-sufficient. We don’t want them ending up on that ex-boyfriend’s couch and moving back into that crowd that maybe enabled those bad addictions. We don’t want them dependent on support from negative sources.”

As with any start-up ministry, John and Leah need help in order to meet the needs of their clients. They’re currently looking for skilled mechanics, car donations and people desiring to sponsor or mentor clients.

“The impact we can help make on someone’s life (is what I love most about this ministry),” John said. “To be able to see them getting to work on time for a week. That’s a big accomplishment. Many of these people have not had that in the past. So to be able to transform someone’s life in that capacity or to enable someone to buy their first car at the age of 35 or 40. … Seeing that spark (of independence).”

And to think, it all started with one car and one niece. Now, this ministry helps people not only gain independence through transportation, but it shows them there are those who love them and want to help them.

We’re not meant to do life alone,” Leah said.

If you’re interested in learning more or want to help, email the Sandlins at  [email protected].