The lessons trauma taught me: A car expert’s tale

From a large Chassidic family to the foster care system, I learned to embrace the people unwelcome at others’ tables.

Chaya Milchtein [Photo courtesy Malia Howell]

Some people wait until their 20s or even 30s to learn the life lessons needed to do something more than just live from day to day. But I learned my lessons early.

I am an automotive educator, writer and speaker; a fat woman focused on empowering women and queer people in their cars and out of them. My work, and the fine line I toe between fashion influencer and auto educator, has allowed me the opportunity to flourish as an eccentric personality. I have built a brand that allows me to be me, on my terms, loud and proud.

When I founded Mechanic Shop Femme, I had no idea that would lead to features in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune or the opportunity to share my story and passions with the world in such a public way. I did not know that my story would empower others, but it feels right to be doing this.

Growing up in a volatile home and later entering the, at times, helpless world of the foster care system was the best educator out there. It taught me the lessons needed to be resilient, creative and empowering, and has allowed me to become the confident, understanding educator that I am today, teaching people about their cars.


There is something about the sweet and intoxicating smell of freshly baked Challah, fried onions, and baked barbeque chicken that always transports me directly back to my Chassidic childhood days preparing for Shabbat. My mother taught me two fundamental lessons: Everything always happens for a reason – divine intervention; and, quite literally, there is always enough room at the table.

On Shabbat, we crowded around that big wooden dining room table, the sanctified candles flickering in the centre, in a brightly lit room barely big enough to fit us. A family now totalling 17 – 15 of whom are children – most years our parents added a child to our brood.

We chattered in English as we got older, with our father often snapping and reminding us to speak Russian, our first language. As children do, we grew bigger over the years and the room grew smaller.

Before the meal, we sang in Hebrew and then recited the blessings on wine and bread before we dug in. Chicken wings were rationed for us kids to ensure there was enough to feed all of us as well as our guests, but there were always enough starchy salads and Challah to make sure we all left the table feeling full. On the surface, life was full of sunlight and rainbows, warm and beautiful. But often the tension that boiled under the surface would become impossible to ignore.

Growing up in an ever-expanding family with lots of guests, it could be difficult to be heard, much less feel heard. It was not the volume of my voice that was the problem per se, but that I often said things that my family would rather I did not. I could not quite learn to mould my message for my parental audience. Instead, I found other ways to be noticed; I would be what my parents considered a rebellious, disobedient child. I would say I was just desperate to be heard.

I loved a variety of books and magazines, not just the Jewish ones, and listening to talk radio and of course, boys. All things strictly forbidden. When I would get caught, the consequences were almost brutal. There is something about the sheering horror and pain of a leather belt and the imprints of a metal buckle that one does not quickly forget – in fact, never forgets.

Eventually, it was not just my family that wasn’t listening. As I started desperately calling out for help, my behaviour and familial religious status became what held me back. He was a rabbi, after all, and knows best how to educate his children, right?

I learned persistence and hope, grasping on to the lesson my mother taught me: Everything happens for a reason. Eventually, things would work out. Eventually, perhaps when I learned to listen and tailor my message better, I would be heard. As a child desperate for an out from an abusive home, I should not have had to do that, but it served me well in the future.

While it was a difficult time in my life, I am forever thankful for the lessons my mother ingrained in me. I do not take them as literally as she likely meant them, but they have helped mould me into the person I am today. My mother taught me that if you centre community, G-d would provide and there would always be enough for everyone. And that is how I live my day-to-day life, embracing people that have been unwelcome at others’ tables.

I work not just for myself, but also for others, by educating women and LGBTQ people about their cars. Together, we face life’s challenges – not just in terms of automotive technical problems, but also in terms of the sort of accessibility issues that are mysteries to folks who have never been unwelcome at their parents’ table.

The writer at a Pride parade the summer before her senior year of high school. She was in foster care at the time [Photo courtesy Chaya Milchtein]

A brave new world

It wasn’t until I was 16 years old that the system heard my screams and finally did something about it. In October 2011, a few months after my 17th birthday, the Milwaukee Bureau of Child Welfare officially decided to remove me from my parents’ home. Entering foster care set me on my journey towards the career that I was destined for in the automotive repair industry.

To demystify cars for underserved communities, I have to respect and embrace the differences both of the underserved communities to the larger world and the differences of individuals within the community. Entering foster care was the first step in learning this skill: I had to learn not just who I was as a person, but also what the world was like outside the Chassidic bubble that I had been raised in.

Imagine for a moment what your world would look like without everyone you knew, without all the comforts of home, with tradition stripped away and your every move analysed and documented. Entering foster care was a culture shock. I had been dumped into a pool of freezing cold water and had to learn how to swim, and quickly.

In a small, Lutheran group home with passionate staff, I was taken to my first art museum. I watched my first action movie on the big screen as I sat enthralled, enjoying this strange new world I could completely envelop myself in. I decided I would keep kosher and cook for myself, trying to find the beauty in my faith my own way, now that I was in control of my own choices.

My first Thanksgiving away from my family was at the group home in November 2011, and we tried to make it cosy. The grandmother of one of the girls cooked and, of course, I made my own kosher turkey to share. My turkey was a hit, perfectly cooked, as I learned from my years of cooking back home, in my mother’s kitchen.

Thanksgiving did not feel much different than Passover or Rosh Hashanah at home, allowing me to build parallels between experiences of food, culture and family all coming together. Then, of course, came Black Friday. Witnessing this made the reality of how my life was changing come crashing back in.

It seemed to me this new world was really very cold – where you would jump from the warm glow of the holiday table into the midst of people fighting over discounted merchandise that they could not afford on any other day.

From the group home to a foster home, and then the next foster home, and the one after that, I constantly felt the need to be heard – but what I really needed was to learn how to listen.

I knew I needed to learn to listen when I realised I could not learn everything from my precious romance novels. That is still something I struggle with today. Listening taught me not only how to understand others but to hear beyond what they were actually saying to hear the feelings behind the words. Listening helped me learn my place in society and how the rest of the world works outside of my community of origin.

I began questioning everything, I needed to dig to better understand the complicated world I was in. After growing up in a community that strongly believed you do not have to understand the why of everything and following G-d’s word was more important, even if it made no sense, the why of things became integral to my growth.

I challenged and studied everything. It came easily at that point, being in and out of Children’s Court, as all children in foster care are – court was the place all the decisions were made, from being allowed to have my wisdom teeth out to getting a haircut – I had lots of time to read all the court documents and many, many books.

As I aged out of the foster care system, I felt the fire of wanting to truly empower people as the foster care system had tried to empower me. Because I had learned to listen, developed my skill at asking questions and embraced the differences of communities I experienced, I was ready.

Finding my feet

Turning 18 in January 2013 and then, after graduating in June, preparing to leave foster care happened in the blink of an eye. It felt strange, knowing I could finally decide what was right for me, for myself. With the weight of a thousand bricks on my shoulders, I knew finding a job was critical to my independence. I spent the months leading up to my 18th birthday and, then, graduation searching desperately.

I had worked hard for my independence, and I did not want to ever live without it. However, a job seemed to be far out of my grasp. No matter how many applications I put in, nothing seemed to come of them. I was stuck in a form of quicksand I would not wish on anyone. The clock was ticking and I had no life preserver to stop the surf from pulling me under.

With English as my second language and a general lack of an American education, I struggled to grasp spelling and grammar, no matter how hard I tried. My Chassidic parents had chosen to educate me mostly in faith and Chassidic teaching, instead of science, creative writing, maths or history. Despite this, I had a knack for gripping a reader’s soul when I shared my story. So, like many young people do today, I turned to the internet with a GoFundMe to share my personal sob story.

The writer turned to GoFundMe for support to get started [Photo courtesy Malia Howell]

I do not remember why I was at the student union at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee – perhaps it was to pick up Wi-Fi access for my laptop. It was just before my 18th birthday, I was still in high school and I was scared and desperate for a source of support since I could not seem to find a job. I sat there and cried. Eventually, the idea to start a GoFundMe came to me. My tears turned into words strung together like a fine pearl necklace, begging the world to support me in the next steps of my journey. It was humbling to ask for help.

Within days, however, I had donations from all over the world. I was in complete shock and awe of the power of my story and finding that asking for help actually worked. Just like that, the trajectory of my life changed. Faith Kohler, a postal inspector and mother in the Milwaukee area, saw my GoFundMe and reached out to me. She had verified that my story was legitimate and wanted to help in a way that would not be as fleeting as a crisp $100 bill. Faith offered her assistance in helping me find a job.

With her help, a new era in my life began. Soon I received my driver’s licence and started working as a service adviser at Sears Auto Center in Glendale, Wisconsin. I bought a car – nothing fancy, just a 2004 dark blue tank known as a Buick Century. A local woman in the community patiently answered all my questions on how not to get screwed over at the dealership. My car became my lifeline. I picked up two part-time jobs in addition to Sears and lived on Starbucks trying to cover all the bills and pay off my car as fast as I could. I did not just drink iced coffee – my regular order, usually twice a day, was a Trenta iced coffee with four shots of espresso.

The 16- to 18-hour days with no real time off did not last long. On a bone-chillingly cold day in late December 2013, while I was driving my best friend home from a community dance I had organised, someone rammed right into my car. It was left a crumpled heap of crushed metal, written off without much thought by my insurance company.

With my lifeline gone, it was time to make a change. Within weeks, I requested that Sears transfer me to New York City. I could not bear the thought of buying another car, let alone getting behind the wheel, following the trauma (both emotional and financial). I knew New York would offer me the ability to learn a lot, and quickly, as well as to become an expert in my field. This was when it became apparent rapidly that cars and the people driving them were my passion, and my ability to advocate for myself and ask my boss for the transfer I needed got me there.

The industry taught me to hold my head up high and look at the sexist male coworkers in front of me with the boldness and ego that I never knew could exist. Cars and my knowledge of them empowered me to speak with confidence. It was time to begin to chart my own way and support my community with my expertise.

The writer working on a car [Photo courtesy Chana Milchtein]

Learning to listen

Listening is essential to being a good educator and writer. I had to really understand what people wanted to read, what they did not understand and what was essential learning when I started my blog, Mechanic Shop Femme. Taking my automotive training and experience and translating it into a small business built for the benefit of others was an adventure. Still the workaholic I had been at 18, I dived right into the thick of things with a blog, spelling and grammar skills be damned! I knew that what I had to teach folks and the stories I had to tell were more important than a few small mistakes.

In June of 2017, I went live with my first blog post, telling people who I was, what I knew and what I wanted to accomplish. I was happy when my audience wanted more. Within six months, I had taught my first virtual automotive class. It came naturally to me, like a fish to water. I swam through the questions, feeding off the energy of the class participants. I felt truly alive and like I had something to give to the world. I was surprised and happy with how eager my students were. I was listening to them and they were listening to me. We were empowering each other.

Growing Mechanic Shop Femme meant showing more of myself to people. It was not just about cars. I was a plus-size model, an eccentric personality in love with brightly coloured clothing. I identify as a queer femme which means I find power in the intersection of my gender expression and my sexuality – femininity as removed from the desire to serve anyone else’s desires aside from my own and using it in the way I interact with the world.

I demanded my whole self be visible through my work. It meant becoming vulnerable and sharing parts of myself and my journey – a journey that includes falling in love with my body and growing from the bitterness of abuse and life in foster care.

I knew what poverty was and how having a car was imperative to clawing my way out of that deep dark hole. When I listened to other people’s experiences, I found similarities in our stories, a common thread that connected us as humans. Whether it was that they were a plus-size person or that they had experienced scarcity and fear, my depth of experience allowed me to listen and help to empower them in their lives.

Today, I actively allow the lessons I learned in my parents’ home, in foster care and as a young adult to lead me. I make sure I listen to the young girl I was before I make decisions or pass judgement. My mother taught me there is always room at the table and now, in that spirit, I make my business sliding scale – offering a range of prices instead of a fixed rate – which allows me to serve as many people as possible. I use the funds from the top of the sliding scale to subsidise classes and services for low-income queer people of colour and people with disabilities.

And I listen.

I listen to the people who need my services, adjusting my strategy and focus to fit their needs. I listen to myself or, if I am being honest, I try to. I learn about what makes me thrive as a person because I am done merely surviving. It is time to blossom and take care of myself so, like a perennial flower, I come back every year stronger than the last.

Source: Al Jazeera