Alena Sanders has been helping others all her life. As a child in her native Czech Republic, she volunteered alongside her parents in disaster relief efforts. She also collected toys for orphanages.
After her family moved to America in 2002 when she was 15, she volunteered with a program that kept schoolchildren out of harm's way. Though she knew very little English, she found a way to make a difference.
Sander's parents returned to the Czech Republic in 2007, but she decided to remain in Tennessee. By the time she got a work permit 2008, her English had improved, but she still struggled to find a job because of the language barrier and a lack of work experience. She submitted applications to more than 10 companies before finally submitting one to Goodwill.
"I really love the mission of Goodwill," Sanders said. "As a shopper, I saw how Goodwill was helping the employees. It made me want to be part of it. I wanted to work somewhere I could feel accepted and also help other people feel accepted, whether they don't speak English or have a physical or mental disability."
She began as a textiles processor at Goodwill's Smyrna store. Over eight years, she has risen through the ranks to become an assistant manager.
Her supervisor, store manager Brian Lane, says Sanders' dedication and steady leadership makes his entire team better. She has all the tools necessary to move up in management, he said, except one: Since April, Sanders has been without a working vehicle. When her old car became unrepairable, Sanders got a loan to buy another one. Within a month, that car's transmission quit, and Sanders could not afford a replacement.
She struggled to find transportation to her job, the grocery store, doctor appointments and other places. Because she lives across town from the Goodwill store and has no family nearby, she frequently had to pay for rides in taxis or from Uber. It was a barrier to being flexible and punctual in her role as assistant manager.
On Tuesday, Goodwill removed that barrier by giving Sanders a donated car.
At a special ceremony at Goodwill Industries of Middle Tennessee headquarters in downtown Nashville, the not-for-profit's president and CEO, Matthew Bourlakas, presented Sanders with the keys to a pre-owned 1998 Nissan Altima in good running condition through Goodwill's Wheels-to-Work program. A generous McMinnville resident donated the car to Goodwill.
The Wheels-to-Work program helps Goodwill employees and clients who need reliable transportation to get to work. To qualify, participants must meet certain qualifications such as being employed at least 32 hours, having a valid driver's license and good driving record. After being notified of acceptance into the program, participants must complete training classes on budgeting, defensive driving and car maintenance.
"I am so grateful and excited," Sanders said. "My job is one of the most important things in my life. This car will ensure I can get to work to take care of my employees and also myself. It will allow me to be more independent."
With a little help from Goodwill, Sanders is back in the driver's seat in her lifelong quest to help others.