From childhood, Mike Rucker always liked to fix stuff. Before he became a police officer, he worked as an airline mechanic. His father and brother taught him how to work on the family cars.
Even after United Airlines laid him off in late 2001, Rucker was, and still is to this day, a mechanic. Not only is he a mechanic, he’s his neighborhood’s favorite mechanic. So it’s no surprise that his garage, Give Back Garage in Brentwood has become the place where two of his passions come home: fixing cars and giving back to the community.
“Even when I was a cop I still liked working on things, so I became like my neighborhood mechanic,” Rucker said. “Fast-forward 18 years later, I’m still doing it, and finding more people in need.”
Give Back Garage’s roots come from Rucker’s early work as the neighborhood mechanic. He would trade auto repairs for basic things like dinner or just do it completely free out of his own pocket, pending on the situation. After a while, the cost of those free fixes started to catch up to Rucker and his wife, Sandy.
“I was at home one night watching TV and my wife’s like, ‘You know, I really appreciate everything you do for people and you have a good heart, but it’d be nice if you won’t spend our money,” Rucker said. “So she got on our computer, went on some websites and got a 501 (c) (3) and she contacted the Bureau of Automotive Repair to apply for a license, got insurance, then I hit up a couple of my friends like ‘Hey, I’m starting this nonprofit.’”
Give Back Garage plays two roles. First, it’s an actual working garage where those who cannot afford regular car maintenance can fill out a form and, if approved, they’ll get their car fixed for free if not at a relatively low cost. Second, it is an after-school program for high school students who are interested in getting into the auto mechanics trade, separate from the auto shop club that Liberty High School has and also separate from the automotive courses that the Contra Costa Regional Occupational Program (ROP) offers.
“People going through struggles and single moms and people trying to get a leg up is almost like maintaining a car,” Rucker said. “If you don’t have the money, it’s almost designed to keep you in poverty.”
Give Back Garage is partnered with NAPA Auto Parts, which helps provide the necessary parts needed for the specific vehicle’s needed repair. Since Rucker and his fellow mechanics work full time, the repairs are done throughout the weekend.
Monday is when the kids take over. On Monday nights, the garage turns into its own after-school program, where high school students who are interested in learning auto mechanics come to work at the garage.
“They’ve done a lot of stuff,” Rucker said. “They’ve done brakes and suspension, and they did a head gasket with us once, so we’re kind of teaching them all sorts of things.”
Kira Westmoreland, a junior from Independence High School, is one of the young mechanics who continues to learn the trade at the garage every Monday night.
“(The last) couple of months have just been amazing,” she said. “It’s great. I honestly thought that I wasn’t going to be able to do it because I’m a girl, and I didn’t think (Rucker) was going to teach me as much as he has, but I’ve learned so much. I’m excited to go to college and become a mechanic because of this. I have opportunities now.”
Like Westmoreland, Ryder Kirkpatrick, also a junior at Independence High, spends his Monday nights at the garage.
“Rucker kind of took me under his wing and showed me stuff and from there it just kind of took off.”
Rucker and Give Back Garage is also producing a scholarship for kids who specifically want to go to trade schools after graduation.
“We need welders and pipefitters and plumbers and electricians,” Rucker said about the need for interest in trades. “I talked to a lot of kids in school, and I might know seven kids who want to go into the trades. There’s so much pride in it. When you get to solve a problem and fix it, there’s a lot of sense of accomplishment and pride that goes into that.”
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