Terrible things supposedly happen in threes, and Thomas J. Atskoff can testify to that.
In 1991 when he was going through a divorce, a simple visit to the doctor for a pulled groin muscle suddenly became a diagnosis of prostate cancer already spreading through his lymph nodes-and with that a three-year life expectancy for the 55-year-old. Then his company was sold and his vice presidency, high paycheck and excellent insurance plan were gone.
For a second opinion on the diagnosis, Mr. Atskoff was sent to a cancer center in Houston where he answered a litany of questions about his life and was interviewed by a psychiatrist.
``When she looked at (the questionnaire), she said, `You lost your good income, you have cancer, you're going through a divorce, you lost your insurance,' and I said yeah,'' Mr. Atskoff, now 71, told Tire Business. ``And she says, `You know, it's amazing that you're not on a water tower with a rifle.' I said, `I think I was brought up better than that.' However, you never know your breaking point.''
After burning through pretty much all of his savings, Mr. Atskoff-who didn't have to consider during his high-earning years where financially strapped people turn-was searching for help everywhere, from his mortgage company, Social Security and pharmaceutical companies. Some hits, some misses. A friend then mentioned the Aftermarket Foundation, and he has been receiving monthly checks from the group since.
``As long as I'm vertical and pumping air, I'm OK,'' he said. ``But it's hard when you lose everything...and if it hadn't been for the foundation, I may have been on that water tower, I don't know. Because the money they give me every month, I couldn't do without it.''
The Aftermarket Foundation is a nonprofit group that assists individuals and families of automotive aftermarket employees who have fallen on hard times because of an unexpected death, catastrophic illness or financial hardship.
The group formed in 1959 as the Jesselson Benevolent Association, which grew out of the ``Quarter Century Club,'' a social group of industry executives who had been in the aftermarket at least 25 years. Founders of the Jesselson association included Maurice ``Moe'' Strauss, a founder of The Pep Boys-Manny, Moe & Jack; Ray Jesselson of Pep Boys; Charles Unger, a vice president at Pep Boys; and Charles Weisman of American Auto.
The foundation has expanded from providing about $10,000 a year to two cases in the early 1980s to administering about $250,000 to 25 cases. Donald Schlenger has overseen that growth as chairman of the foundation. He had worked for R&S Strauss-now Strauss Discount Auto-from 1949 to 1988 including about 20 years as president and chairman.
Now the group hopes to grow its ranks-of both donors and recipients-with a public relations push aimed at making the foundation more known in the industry.
Mr. Schlenger said one of his biggest problems heading the foundation has been attracting donations, in part because companies aren't aware of what the foundation does. Unlike fundraising drives to help victims of hurricanes, floods or other disasters, most of the Aftermarket Foundation's clients-and their stories-are kept confidential.
That not only makes fundraising difficult, but also hinders needy recipients from knowing the foundation can help, ``so it's a two-edged sword,'' he said.
Mr. Atskoff said he was willing to open up about his experiences so the industry is more aware of the work the foundation does.
``If there's a way that I could...travel and help them raise money, oh God,'' he said. ``But I can't do it anymore. And sometimes I feel so guilty I just don't want to get out of bed.''
The main criteria to receive assistance is that an individual or family member must have worked in the automotive aftermarket and the person or their family must have no other alternatives for help. The foundation's application, for instance, asks about the incomes of an applicant's spouse, children, parents and siblings as well as the applicant's assets and debts.
Applications go to a committee, which recommends either approval or denial of assistance, and the full board of 25 members then reviews that recommendation, Mr. Schlenger said. To get quick assistance to families, he added, the process is designed to happen in 24 to 48 hours through e-mail.
``This is not like the U.S. government or anybody else because if we get a case, they need the money,'' he said. ``They can't wait.''
Every year the cases are reviewed to determine whether assistance should be continued.
Ultimately, Mr. Schlenger said he would like to get the foundation to the point where its investments would cover the assistance payments, but that would take a 200-percent increase in its monetary might.
``Then we don't have to worry about fundraising,'' he said. ``It would be wonderful if we could do that.''
In the meantime, Mr. Schlenger wants to get more retailers on the fundraising rolls. The foundation's main fundraiser during the year is a golf tournament in Las Vegas before the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) trade show in November. Last year's event raised $206,000, said Ross Kogel Jr., a foundation board member and director of marketing for Tire Wholesalers Inc. in Troy, Mich.
SEMA, the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association (AAIA) and Motor and Equipment Manufacturers Association (MEMA) each contribute $33,000 a year to the foundation, Mr. Kogel said. Other companies that contribute include Bridgestone/Firestone, Continental Tire North America Inc., Cooper Tire & Rubber Co., Auto Zone, Ever-Wear Products, Falken Tire Corp., Hunter Engineering Co., Michelin North America Inc., Strauss Discount Auto, TBC Corp., Tireco Inc., Tire Rack, Treadways Corp. and Yokohama Tire Corp. Mr. Kogel said Tire Wholesalers contributed $1,000 last year.
The foundation is audited by McGladrey & Pullen L.L.P. According to the 2004 audit, the foundation took in $411,697 in contributions and investment income while it spent $60,319 on support expenses such as office supplies, salaries and printing. The foundation gave $212,750 in financial assistance to beneficiaries that year.
For Mr. Schlenger, who retired in 1988, each of the families the foundation helps comes with stories that ``will bring tears to your eyes.''
``My life has been full with spending time with the foundation because it isn't just giving back, it gives back to me the satisfaction and the fulfillment of helping others,'' he said.
Since his avalanche of trouble in the early 1990s, Mr. Atskoff is faring better. He moved back to Ohio from Florida and married his second wife, Karen, 12 years ago. His cancer is ``quiet'' and he's been off treatment for two years. Some other health concerns have sprung up and he still has some muddy financial waters.
``I'm very fortunate,'' he said, admitting ``something could happen tomorrow'' but he really doesn't have a lot of complaints because ``so many people have been good to me and I had a great career.''
One of the most difficult effects of the cancer, he said, was feeling out of the loop. A high school graduate who clawed his way to the top of a company that handled sales operations for automotive companies, he never wanted to retire. ``I thought I would just go on and on and on and someday just maybe disappear,'' he told Tire Business.
But when the chemotherapy's side effects made it impossible for him to work, he suddenly was without the career and purpose that had driven him.
``When you reach a certain age and you work those years, and you're out of the loop, you feel like you're standing in a desert all by yourself and you go into a deep depression,'' he said. ``...Every terrible thought that you can conjure up goes through your body.''
But the foundation's help, he said, has eased his anxiety. ``They've helped me in my mind so I don't have to worry about certain things,'' he said. Mr. Atskoff and his wife live in an apartment near Lake Erie, where they moved to be back to a body of water like he had been by in Florida.
``She doesn't have anything, I don't have anything, and we got each other,'' he said, laughing.
For more information, contact the Aftermarket Foundation at (772) 286-5500 or log onto its Web site: www.aftermarketfoundation.org.
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Aftermarket Foundation donors
The contributor list to the nonprofit Aftermarket Foundation has many company and trade association participants, including:
The Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA); Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association (AAIA); Motor and Equipment Manufacturers Association (MEMA); Bridgestone/Firestone; Continental Tire North America Inc.; Cooper Tire & Rubber Co.; Auto Zone; Ever-Wear Products; Falken Tire Corp.; Hunter Engineering Co.; Michelin North America Inc.; Strauss Discount Auto; TBC Corp.; Tireco Inc.; Tire Rack; Treadways Corp.; Yokohama Tire Corp.; and Tire Wholesalers Inc.