Since the pandemic began in March, many people have lost jobs and businesses. For Charlie Skinaway, it was a time of journeying to a new beginning.
After working at the Detail shop in Park Rapids for three years, he and his family had moved to Texas in search of a fresh start.
“I found work but it wasn’t enough to support my family,” he said.
In February, he decided to move back to Park Rapids and open his own shop in the former Showcase Auto building.
“I borrowed $89, bought a bus ticket and left with three peanut butter sandwiches my wife made,” he said. “She gave me her last $11 and drove me to the Dallas bus station for a 25-hour ride to Bemidji. My sister who lives in Bemidji dropped me off in Park Rapids. I believe this is where I am supposed to be. I went through 13 months of therapy for healing as a Native American before leaving for Texas. My final assignment was to write my timeline of all the trauma I experienced since birth. I like to run whenever things get uncomfortable. So I never completed my timeline. I believe I have something to complete here emotionally speaking.
A difficult journey
Skinaway was born in Minneapolis. “When I was 7 we moved up to the Reservation on the Ponsford Prairie,” he said. “I grew up Native American. My life was filled with trauma. Because it was just the way I was raised I didn’t really see anything different. I didn’t realize until later what I experienced was trauma that resulted in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.”
Growing up Skinaway learned about working on cars from his uncles. That led to attending Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis for two years to learn the auto repair trade.
“I worked for Sears automotive and later as a manager in shops and opened my own facility in Minneapolis,” he said. “I’ve always had the entrepreneur bug.”
Taking a leap of faith
At first, Skinaway stayed with family in Bemidji, driving to work in Park Rapids each day with a vehicle provided by a friend. He has since found his own place at Meadow View Apartments in Park Rapids.
He named his new business Blue Sky Automotive Services.
“I’m so grateful for my customers,” he said. “They want to see me succeed. Sometimes I can feel pretty negative but I’m loved by a lot of customers and that’s pretty encouraging.”
Skinaway also applied for help from the Northwest Minnesota Foundation in Bemidji
“They said they wanted to jump on board and help me with a low interest loan,” he said. “With their help I felt like I could do it.”
Then COVID-19 hit and everything was put on hold.
“So that seemed like a dead end,” he said. “Opening a business during a pandemic has been really hard. It was very discouraging. It looked bleak. Business was slow, but some customers kept coming. That helped me with food and having money to send back to my family in Texas.”
Skinaway printed flyers about his new business and put them on every car at the hospital parking lot and other essential businesses that remained open.
Struggling but still standing
Skinaway said his struggles have strengthened his determination to succeed.
“I almost quit during the pandemic but I didn’t,” he said. “I don’t have a ‘Plan B’. I think that is what has kept me here. If I have a ‘Plan B’ then if things get hard for me I can quit. I don’t want a reason to quit.”
Skinaway said he sees customer relations and listening to the customer as equally important to his mechanical knowledge.
“I want to make the customer comfortable by communicating in a manner that brings ease whether it’s a $200 repair or a $2,000 repair,” he said. “Nobody wants an unexpected repair bill. You wake up one morning and are planning to go to work or to visit family and it just happens. I don’t want to be just another auto repair shop. I want to be a business that cares for the customer first and does auto repairs second.”
He said his own hardships have helped him understand that a car repair can bring up deeper issues.
“Going through hardship with their car brings up emotions in people who are dealing with their own brokenness,” he said. “When you’re already going through a hard time, the last thing you want is a broken car. It’s more than nuts and bolts. I have a heart to help people who are struggling.”
Dreams of helping others
Skinaway said once he has his business established he would like to do something to help other Native Americans who are struggling.
“I’d like to reach out to the Native American community, to have a program where Native Americans who are trying to get on their feet can buy a good used car through a payroll deduction,” he said. “I want to help Native Americans who are really struggling and just need a spark of hope any way that I can. That’s one of the bigger dreams that I have, to be more of an impact than just a shop to make a living and pay the rent. I’d like to give back.”
Skinaway said he is back in therapy and that his service dog, a Pekinese Poodle named Tyson, has been a lifesaver.
“I’ve spent a life fixing broken things,” he said. “Now I’m learning to mend the broken pieces of my own personal life. There is hope for PTSD. There is healing when you walk through that journey.”