Mom’s story inspires reader to get her much-needed van

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Tom Kolassa ’69, chair of the The University of Olivet Board of Trustees, was so inspired by Michelle Garn’s story in the Lansing State Journal that he purchased a van for her and her family.

Read the original story, written by Rachel Greco, here.

POTTERVILLE – Michelle Garn and Tom Kolassa had never met before Tuesday, but outside her home they embraced like old friends. There wasn’t a dry eye between them.

The mom of two has held a special place in Kolassa’s heart since May.

That’s when the Battle Creek business man read about the contest Garn’s son Brendan, 17, had entered in hopes of winning her a new custom wheelchair-accessible vehicle.

The van she drives, a rusted out 2000 Dodge Caravan, is fraught with issues. Brendan desperately wanted to help her replace it. His 400-word essay — submitted in the National Mobility Awareness Month contest offered through National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association — earned Garn a finalist spot but not a vehicle.

Kolassa, who retired from the insurance business after 40 years, is chair of The University of Olivet’s Board of Trustees. He read the story, which first appeared in the Lansing State Journal, in the Battle Creek Enquirer.

He said he simply felt compelled to help her.

Garn, 42, has been confined to a wheelchair since suffering a brain stem stroke at age 29. She devotes much of her time to her children, shuttling them to sports practices and school events in the run-down van.

Kolassa said he was touched by her strength.

“I wanted to tell her, ‘You didn’t win this contest, but you are first place in somebody’s heart.'”

He decided to get her a new van, a 2014 Chrysler Town & Country with just 15,000 miles on it. He enlisted help from staff at Heritage Chevrolet and Freedom Motors in Battle Creek to select the vehicle and make it fully handicap accessible.

The act of generosity, worth about $45,000, came when Garn needed it most. On Friday, the day she got the news, she had struggled to start her old van.

“I was thinking about it, worrying about it all the way to my appointment,” she said. “I thought, ‘I need to get this in to my mechanic.'”

The phone call that afternoon was a shock.

Someone read your story. He wants to give you a new van.

Garn could conjure only tears.

“I’m still in shock,” she said, before Kolassa arrived at her house Tuesday. “I’ve been waiting all day for my phone to go off and for someone to say, ‘Sorry. We meant a different Michelle Garn from Potterville.'”

Garn, Brendan and daughter Robin, 13, were standing outside when Kolassa delivered his gift.

There were plenty of tears and ‘thank yous,’ happy smiles and gasps as Jason Babcock, sales manager for Freedom Motors, showed the family their new van. He presented them with a gas gift card and walked her through how to use the features.

Garn went up the hydraulic ramp and pivoted into the driver’s seat.

“Oh my gosh!” she said quietly. “It’s beautiful.”

Her children climbed in two of the passenger seats with her and then huddled over the console.

“I’m so happy,” said Robin. “Words can’t even describe how happy I am. It’s so nice.”

“That someone would actually do this,” said Brendan. “It’s unbelievable.”

When Garn turned to Kolassa, she was at a loss for words. “I don’t know how to thank you,” she said.

Her joy was thanks enough.

“I grew up having really nothing and I see that,” he said. “I see the hard work she’s doing in trying to support two children. If I can help somebody like that, that’s important, in my life and hers.”

Michelle Garn cries as she hugs Tom Kolassa Tuesday,
PHOTO: Michelle Garn cries as she hugs Tom Kolassa Tuesday, August 11, 2015, after he gave her the keys to her new van at her home in Potterville. Garn was driving a rusty, 15-year-old van with 200,000 miles on it when her son entered her into a contest to win a new van. They didn’t win but Kolassa, from Battle Creek, saw the story and was took it upon himself to arrange for her to get a 2014 Chrysler Town and Country wheelchair accessible van. Dave Wasinger/Lansing State Journal



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