Leaning under the hood of a red Ford Explorer, Valden Gardiner pulled the vehicle's dipstick to check the oil level, then felt the SUV's various hoses for signs of cracks.
The Southern Adventist University student was one of several students scattered in the parking lot of the Samaritan Center in Ooltewah on Sunday conducting free vehicle inspections. The students, all part of the school's automotive program, spent the afternoon marking checklists and talking with vehicle owners about potential problems.
"It's just a general inspection and, if they need a service, we can book them at our shop at Southern," Gardiner said.
This was the 17th year SAU has partnered with the Samaritan Center to host the event. Students do inspections twice a year, said Dale Walters, associate professor of technology at Southern. The students inspected the vehicles using checklists from the Car Care Council, a national nonprofit that advocates for regular car maintenance, and checked for things like fluid levels and worn belts, as well as tire condition and pressure.
The students did not fix any vehicles in the parking lot but did alert owners about potential problems.
Pearl Sukow brought her van to the center because of another problem with an injection coil. Her "check engine" light came on again, despite recently getting her car serviced. Her husband saw an advertisement for the free inspections, so she decided to stop by, Sukow said.
An unexpected car breakdown could be a crisis point for many Hamilton County residents. In September, a report from the United Ways of Tennessee found that 39% of Hamilton County residents struggle to meet the cost of living in the county. The asset limited, income constrained and employed report, otherwise known as ALICE, showed an increase in the number of people who are struggling financially but still live above the federal poverty line.
Not only was the afternoon an opportunity to help students practice what they have learned on campus, but it was also a way to be a help to people in the area, Walters said.
"It's an awareness for the car owner," he said. " It's a good experience for our students to see cars in all states of repair. And it's good for our young people to learn to give back."