By Mike Wade
NRVCS Community Relations Specialist

When considering the keys to quality behavioral health services, it is highly unlikely that a safe, reliable vehicle would come to mind for most. Yet, in places like southwest Virginia, access to transportation can be a huge barrier for those in need of care.

That’s especially true for a large number of individuals served by NRVCS who live in the more rural areas of the New River Valley where public transportation is not an option. For years, the agency has maintained a fleet of vehicles to ensure that persons living with mental health or substance use disorders, or those diagnosed with developmental disabilities, can get the help they need.

Most of these individuals will never get to meet Andy Surratt or even learn his name, but he and fellow mechanic, Lonnie Mullins, are as important to their well-being as any case manager, clinician, or psychiatrist. Not to mention the fact that many of NRVCS’ employees would struggle to provide services to their clients if not for the efforts of the agency’s dynamic duo of auto repair.

That’s right. Just two men – four hands – are responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of nearly 200 vehicles that range from small cars to huge passenger buses utilized by the Radford Transit system.

“Fortunately, the majority of our fleet is less than ten years old, so there aren’t a lot of huge mechanical failures that we have to deal with,” notes Surratt. “It’s mostly tires, oil changes, and routine stuff.”

Surratt explains that the agency’s vehicles are scheduled on a two-month rotation for preventative maintenance and that he and Mullins schedule 4-5 vehicles for each work day. That might not seem like an overwhelming number, but the daily schedule allows the two some flexibility so that they can respond to reactive maintenance issues (flat tires, dead batteries, etc.) in a timely manner.

“It’s a pretty decent system, I suppose,” adds Surratt. “Our situation is unique because there really are no other fleets like this…We serve multiple jurisdictions and the REACH (Regional Education Assessment Crisis Services Habilitation) program basically covers the entire western part of the state.”

Caring for the Radford Transit fleet, as well as the vans and buses with NRVCS’ Community Transit services, presents another level of challenges for Surratt and Mullins.

“Those are a bit more intensive to service – just because of their size and also because of the routine wear and tear they take on,” Surratt explains. “They are abused – subjected to the worst vehicle conditions there are – slow speed and constant stop-and-go.”

Even more impressive than the volume of work he takes on is the fact that Surratt has no formal education or training in automotive maintenance and repair – other than a certification to perform state inspections. Yes, Andy Surratt is a self-taught mechanic.

“I grew up poor like many people in this area,” says Surratt, a native of Wythe County. “Once I was old enough to drive, I couldn’t afford anything new or nice to ride around in, so I drove old, cheap cars. I knew if I wanted to get around, I would have to figure out how to keep them going.”

“When you’re doing that, you pick up skills along the way,” he adds. “I’ve also done a lot of independent research. The internet is a very powerful tool.”

Surratt, who has been with NRVCS for over six years, says he prefers to take a comprehensive approach to caring for an automobile.

“You really need to have a complete understanding of all of a vehicle’s systems and how they interact,” he says. “Just like in the medical field, you have to treat the whole person – not just individual parts, but find out about their diet and their exercise habits. You can’t treat that person effectively if you don’t take all of that into consideration.”

“It’s really the same with a car,” continues Surratt. “How’s it being driven? What kind of gas is being used? How frequently are you getting oil changes? Those can all be huge factors in the health of a vehicle and each one has its own story behind it.”

While safety is obviously the priority, Surratt points out that his department’s vehicle maintenance program also has to consider budget limitations, along with their fair share of paperwork and record keeping.

“We do our best to maximize tire wear, brake wear and oil life – as long as it falls within the limits of what’s safe,” he notes, “but it’s definitely a balancing act.”

Surratt says the most important factor in keeping the fleet running smoothly is cooperation – namely, that staff bring in their vehicles for maintenance on time.

“We have a stringent preventative maintenance program but we try to be very accommodating,” Surratt adds. “I recognize that our people are spread pretty thin and they have a lot to deal with – I understand that – but we have a job to do here, too.”

Since he and Mullins are also responsible for cleaning out the vehicles when they are brought in for service, Surratt says staff could be a huge help if they would simply dispose of trash before dropping off their car.

“Anytime we have to spend a bunch of time cleaning out a car that really slows things down on our end,” adds Surratt. “If you take a step back to think about it, it’s an enormous privilege to have a car provided to you so that you can do your job. I think it’s important that we respect that.”

Surratt says the current workload in the garage would be impossible without the dedication and effort of Mullins.
“Lonnie’s a superhero,” Surratt declares. “He doesn’t call in, he doesn’t complain and he gets the work done…He really cares about doing a good job – that’s important to him.”

“[Lonnie] handles a lot of the actual physical work so I can focus on more of the logistical stuff,” adds Surratt. “We’d be in a pretty bad way if it weren’t for him.”

When he’s not at the NRVCS garage, you might catch Surratt working his second job at the Radford Theatre. He started volunteering at the renovated downtown theatre in the summer of 2015. Working alongside his wife, who was already a member of the staff, Surratt eventually took on a paid position and now spends many of his evenings and weekends selling tickets and concessions.

“It’s a labor of love,” he says. “It’s kind of neat to see a little bit of what goes on behind-the-scenes in the film industry.”

While Surratt’s work at NRVCS may not be material for a Hollywood blockbuster, he’s definitely an unsung hero.

“I take pride in knowing that what I do ultimately helps keep our people safe by making sure they have safe vehicles to drive in,” says Surratt. “If it were my car and I had to drive all over Floyd County or wherever, I’d want to know that it wasn’t going to let me down.”

“The best part of my job are those rare, brief periods of time when nothing’s broken and everything is up and running so people can do their jobs and we can get folks where they need to be,” Surratt concludes.