Car dealers give back to towns that support them
Rohrich Automotive Group's parts warehouse in Beechview is an unlikely spot for a charity. Yet backpacks and piles of donated pajamas, school supplies and toys for children in foster care fill a second-floor room.Kelly Rohrich and friend Ellen Thoemier started Operation Backpack Children's Foundation seven years ago, moved it from Kelly's crowded garage in Collier to the warehouse along Saw Mill Run Boulevard, and now provide an average 150 filled backpacks every month for children who likely left home with only the clothes they were wearing.With husband, David Rohrich -- the company's owner -- providing space, computers, utilities and the use of delivery trucks, "100 percent of our money goes right to the kids," Kelly Rohrich said.Auto dealers often become important philanthropists in towns they serve. Their giving appears to be on the rise nationwide, after a drop during the industry slump three years ago, dealers and experts said.Though no one tracks numbers, it's common for regional dealers' organizations and families that have run auto lots and showrooms for generations to raise money for hospitals, colleges and organizations such as United Way, said Bob Mallon, chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Charitable Foundation and a retired Ford dealer in Tacoma, Wash.Promoting car brands and their businesses by forging local ties is part of it, Mallon said. Also, "It's an attitude, deep down. (Dealers) recognize they have the wherewithall to do these things."The Pennsylvania Automotive Association Foundation created 10 years ago by new car and truck dealers granted $921,000 to charities in 2010, its most recent annual report says. And the Greater Pittsburgh Automobile Dealers Association recently donated $82,500 to Austin's Playroom Project, a Mario Lemieux Foundation initiative to build playrooms for siblings of patients at medical facilities.David Hyatt of McLean, Va.-based National Auto Dealers Association said many of the 17,500 new car dealers sponsor Little League baseball teams, lend models for parades or serve on hospital boards.In Western Pennsylvania:cents North Hills Toyota of Ross, for the second time, will sponsor the Golfing Fore Maya event scheduled June 3 at Deep Valley Golf Course in Harmony, and will park a Prius there as a possible hole-in-one prize, said General Manager Carlos Echevarria. The event benefits Maya Torres, 6, of Aspinwall, diagnosed as an infant with rare brain malformations.cents Diehl Automotive Group in Butler raised almost $20,000 for the American Cancer Society's Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk over the past two years. The business, which sells Chrysler and Toyota vehicles, sponsors baseball teams, 5K races and other programs, said Donnie A. Gutherie, marketing manager.cents Baierl Automotive Group of Wexford gave $500,000 to help build an indoor sports complex with meeting rooms next to the football field at North Allegheny High School. The Baierl Center for Excellence opened in 2002 and "is booked solid, seven days a week, from mid-October to the end of March," said Bob Bozzuto, the district's athletic director. The family donated money that put the family name on the YMCA in Sewickley, a cancer treatment wing at UPMC Passavant hospital and a fitness center at the University of Pittsburgh.cents Clarence "Bud" Smail, CEO of Smail Auto Group in Hempfield, chairs the Westmoreland County Community College board's golf outing committee. The event raised $55,000 for student scholarships in recent years."Being an auto dealer, you get asked all the time for donations," Kelly Rohrich said, estimating she and others connected to the Dormont-based Rohrich dealership group field 30 to 40 requests each week.Her husband urged her to focus on a cause she was passionate about. She and Thoemier created the backpack program after attending a fundraiser for A Child's Place at Mercy, a children's advocacy center at UPMC Mercy hospital's Uptown campus.The Mercy center, and another at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, are first stops for children removed from their homes because of suspected abuse or neglect.Kelly Rohrich and Thoemier load backpacks -- 1,000 came last year from Toyota Motor Corp.'s Scion brand -- with toothpaste, toothbrushes, notebooks, toys and other items chosen to suit the age and sex of the child.Clothes, shoes and pajamas are added later, as children need them, and bags for infants contain formula, bottles and diapers.Children in foster care move six to eight times a year, Rohrich said. In addition to the bags, the foundation has funded training programs for A Child's Place staff and provided some direct donations.The headquarters space and utilities are worth $30,000 a year, she said, and auto brands that Rohrhich carries kick in. Lexus matched a $5,000 donation last year from Rohrich's Lexus of North Hills store, for example.Donations come from Girl Scout troops, churches and fundraisers, and through the website www.obackpack.com. Some backpacks go to children in Erie or other regions outside the Pittsburgh area, Rohrich said, and a division might open in Harrisburg.Dealers often choose charities based on requests from people in communities or employees, along with "what fits the brand" of autos they sell, said Jeannine Fallon of auto research firm Edmunds.com.Automakers often partner with specific charities, such General Motors Corp.'s donations of more than $23 million in cash and vehicles since 1994 to The Nature Conservancy for habitat protection projects. Manufacturers may encourage dealers to get involved, but typically don't mandate it, she said.