GEORGETOWN — For the first time in a week, Operation UNITE's new Toyota Highlander Hybrid wasn't headed to storm-damaged areas. Instead, it drove to Toyota's sprawling plant in Georgetown to show firsthand that the automaker's 100 Cars for Good program is doing just that.
"Eastern Kentucky was ravaged by these tornadoes, and we were able to give immediate response," Operation UNITE deputy director Dan Smoot told other non-profits that also received free vehicles last year. "This is the only day it hasn't been down there, and it'll be down there until the people of Eastern Kentucky are back on their feet."
The original plan for Operation UNITE's Highlander Hybrid didn't include storm recovery efforts. Until this week, it was used to transport people in need of drug-abuse treatment to helpful programs.
It was that mission that led Operation UNITE to be selected last year to receive the free vehicle in a public vote on Toyota's Facebook page. The company selected 500 non-profits nationally and featured five each day, with the top vote-getter receiving a new ride and runners-up getting $1,000 grants.
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Beginning Monday, registered 501(c)(3) non-profits may apply for the program's second year at Facebook.com/toyota. The application process will last for two weeks or until the automaker receives 5,000 entries. Those will be culled down to 500 finalists that will be featured in the voting contests.
Last year, 11 of the 100 vehicles went to non-profits in Kentucky, making it the state receiving the highest number.
"When you're able to beat out giving to states like Texas and California, that's a pretty amazing thing," plant president Wil James told the assembly of non-profit groups.
To stand out, some of the non-profits ran extensive publicity campaigns to help their causes. The Jewish Hospital & St. Mary's Foundation in Louisville had volunteers stand outside major employers and hand out fliers encouraging workers to vote.
"It was an exciting day and a stressful day," said Sherri Craig, foundation vice president.
Now the organization is using its Sienna Mobility van to transport children in psychiatric care to doctor and dental appointments.
"It replaces one we had with more than 300,000 miles on it," she said. "We love it."
In Lexington, the Kentucky Blood Center relied on emails to supporters and drumming up interest on its own Facebook page, which was less than a year old at that point, said Martha Osborne, executive director of marketing and recruitment.
"We had people voting all over the country for us," she said.
The prizes have been a major boon to each of the groups, their representatives said. The Anderson Humane Society used to spend $100 a week or more on gas to take animals to vet appointments or adoption events. Now, its Highlander Hybrid has dropped that cost to about $30, said Donna Callahan, director of the group's adoption center.
And the benefits to those the non-profits help, many said, has been immeasurable, especially to Kentucky's recent storm victims.
"I truly believe if we had more companies like Toyota, this would be a much greater country to live in," Smoot said. "They actually put their money where their mouth is."