Six years ago, PC “Pastor Chris” Williams was driving home from church on a rainy night in Montgomery, Texas, when he spotted a mother and child from his congregation walking along the side of busy Highway 105. Pulling over, he offered the pair a ride and asked why they were out on such a dismal evening.
“They told me that their car had been in the shop for months and they couldn’t afford to get it out,” Williams, 49, now living in Conroe, Texas, tells PEOPLE. “Right then, I decided that I needed to figure out a way to get my dream of opening a free garage off the ground.”
Williams, then a children’s pastor, borrowed money and campaigned for donations, and several months later opened God’s Garage, a non-profit auto repair service that focuses on helping single mothers, widows and the wives of deployed military members.
Since 2012, with help from about a dozen rotating volunteers, the group has repaired more than 200 cars at no cost and given away more than 100 restored vehicles to women in need.
“I know what it’s like to be short on money and long on car troubles,” says Williams. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve prayed that my car would start in the morning so I could get to work.”
Working out of a shop next to his home, Williams, who is married with two grown daughters, now makes tuneups and engine repairs his life’s mission, even though he confesses that he actually hates to work on cars.
“My dad went to tech school to become a mechanic before he became a pastor, and I followed him into the pastor side of things, but didn’t know much about cars,” he tells PEOPLE. “My dad taught me the basics of car care, and I grew up watching him help people stuck on the side of the road.”
“As I grew older,” he adds, “I kept telling myself, ‘When I’m in the right position, I’m going to help people.’ So when I saw this need in my community, I decided the solution was to surround myself with guys who know more about fixing cars than I do. Together, we’re making it happen at God’s Garage.”
Williams decided to focus on helping women because over the years, he’d heard horror stories of dishonest car dealers and repair shops trying to take advantage of single moms and widows.
“Sadly there are people who will prey upon just about anyone,” he says. “Also, car repairs are so expensive, and where I live, it’s rural. So if you don’t have a car, you can’t get a job. And if you don’t have a job, you can’t buy a car. It’s a cruel dilemma to be in.”
On any given afternoon or evening, about five to 10 men who like to tinker with cars show up at God’s Garage to share dinner and camaraderie and work their magic, using parts purchased through donations or given away by local auto businesses.
“There’s no greater joy than seeing a mom finally be able to start her car up and drive it home,” volunteer Harvey Yaw, 67, tells PEOPLE. “And when people donate their old cars and we fix them up and give them away, there’s a feeling that’s unbelievable. The people are so grateful — their emotion always brings tears of happiness.”
For Shelby Grimet, 25, who was surprised with a renovated Honda 2004 CRV from God’s Garage last year, the gift of transportation has made almost every other aspect of her life as a single mom easier to deal with.
“It was hard to get a job because I had no way to get there,” says Grimet, of Galveston, who has a 5-year-old son, Rylan, “and there’s no way that I could have afforded to buy a car of any kind. It would take forever to get anywhere on the bus.”
Now, thanks to Williams, she has a job at a children’s museum and can regularly take her son on outings to the beach or to the park, plus have breakfast with him every morning at his school.
“God’s Garage has given us freedom and has taken away a lot of our stress,” Grimet tells PEOPLE. “Every day, they’re changing people’s lives. They’ve certainly changed mine.”
Happy outcomes such as Grimet’s are the reason why Williams and his volunteers often work late into the night, replacing batteries and carburetors and pounding out dents. The former pastor recalls the time he gave a single mother with three children the keys to a large town car, wishing that he’d been able to find her something smaller and more attractive.
“It was a huge boat of a car,” he says, “and as I handed over the keys, one of her little girls started crying and reached up and grabbed hold of my shirt. ‘Do you know what this means?’ she told me. ‘It means that I can go to the store, and mama can take me to school and the doctor.’ It was such an amazing and touching experience. I had to keep wiping my eyes that night.”