ANDERSON — Christmas may be five months away, but the “Car Santa” is planning on making an appearance at the Paramount Theatre in a few weeks.
Terry Franz founded Cars 4 Heroes, a nonprofit organization that gives away vehicles to needy veterans, in the mid-’90s. The former owner of a Kansas City car dealership, Franz said his first automobile giveaway was a business promotion. From there, the effort grew until in 2005, he gave away 50 cars at Christmas.
“I had sold my car lot off, but I kept giving the cars away anyway because we saw the importance of helping people out, people that couldn’t get help,” Franz said.
Soon he was making appearances on local radio stations, and applications from active and retired military personnel began to accumulate.
It wasn’t long before he acquired the “Car Santa” nickname. But the idea of giving cars away for Christmas in July “just didn’t sound right,” according to Franz, so he decided to change the program’s focus exclusively to helping veterans.
“We still go back at Christmastime and do an event that’s open to everybody,” Franz said, “but pretty much during the rest of the year it’s open to veterans, active duty military and first responders and their families.”
Cars 4 Heroes gives away about 300 vehicles each year, but Franz said that covers only a fraction of the 15,000 applications the organization receives annually.
“We’re growing at a fast rate, but it’s never fast enough for the need that’s out there,” he said.
Next month’s event at the Paramount will feature a concert by California Surf, featuring five former members of the Beach Boys, and the announcement of two local veterans who will receive cars.
“It’s a noble cause,” said Randy Hammel, executive director of the Paramount Theatre. “We love working with people, with noble causes like this, and we’re doing everything we can to make this event a success.”
Franz estimates that Cars 4 Heroes has given away “thousands” of vehicles over the last 15 years. He said that although the use of a reliable car can be life-changing for a veteran in need, he sees the giveaways as tools to help people better their situations.
“The program is not called ‘fix my life,’ ” Franz said. “People write me and they say if I had transportation, I could fix my own life. So we supply them with a tool. It’s not a prize and it’s not a promotional thing. If we think they legitimately could use a car to better their own life, the rest is up to them. We give them the tool and then they go to work on fixing their life.”