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Guardian Garage: Restoring Hearts And Minds

Photography by Patrick McCarthy

There’s a unique sense of fulfillment that comes from taking something worn out and giving it a new life. Maybe it’s a piece of antique furniture, an old car rotting away in a field, or some vintage appliance pushed aside by progress. Many feel those inanimate objects have a soul and a story of their own to tell. It’s kind of like that ’50s cartoon, “Susie the Little Blue Coupe,” where an anthropomorphic car went from brand-spanking new to broken down, changing hands, and ending up sad, alone, and forgotten in a junkyard. 

Then, one day, a wide-eyed kid saw its potential and turned that abandoned little jalopy into a happy, tire-melting hot rod. Guardian Garage is not only doing those kinds of transformations with the items that come through its doors, but also with the volunteers who make it possible. 

Cofounder and retired deputy sheriff Craig Lewis told us how this facility in Peoria, Arizona, came about. Guardian Garage was founded by former military and first responders. Lewis and his brother, who is a combat vet, cooked up the idea after seeing how the trauma of their careers not only affected them personally, but also those they served with. 

After recruiting some other folks who shared their vision and obtaining their 501(c)(3), they built a 3,200-square-foot (and growing) shop to do restoration work. Their bailiwick includes automotive work, metal fabrication, and upholstery, and a woodworking shop is currently in progress. 

From this ’36 Chevy pickup a participant brought in to this ’94 Harley donated to build as a future raffle item, Guardian Garage’s vehicular projects run the gamut.

The goal was to provide a place for active and retired servicemembers and first responders to be around like-minded people to not only have a bonding experience, but to help others develop a skill set to manage the stress of their careers. 

They’ve even branched out to including family members of fallen officers or military members, so they have a place to come in, make connections, and work on something fun, productive, and creative. Even if you’re not mechanically inclined (yet), but would like to learn, come on over and they’ll teach you how to use the tools and learn the processes. 

While you might not have your own project to bring in and work on, they can still put you to work on something to tap into your inner artistry. Some guys bring in a classic car they’ve dreamed of fixing up and couldn’t afford to have done by a custom shop, while others show up empty handed with nothing more than a desire to work. 

Even if no one in the shop has the expertise needed to help you louver your hood or TIG weld, they’ll bring in a mentor to show you how. Although the program has only been up and running since 2022, the concept certainly seems to have great potential and their long-term focus is to see other Guardian Garages spring up elsewhere.

Here we see a participant using a metal saw rescued and refurbished by the Garage participants.

Even if cars aren’t your thing, some of Guardian Garage’s nonvehicular projects have included an old Coca- Cola machine turned into a gun cabinet and a vintage candy dispenser that now spits out the best treats of all … ammo. Let’s say you want to freshen up the wood and redo the fabric on an old sofa — they can help you make that happen. 

Repurposing things is part of the process. “You feel good when you take something that someone wanted to throw out and make it usable again,” Lewis says. Making something using your hands and mind together is not only therapeutic, but that feeling of purpose and having a team dynamic that’s often lost after the end of the career is revitalized as well. 

This 1946 Chevrolet 1.5 ton had its engine built and swapped at the Garage.

“This is a way to have something to reengage with your family over. First responders and military don’t come home and want to talk about what happened at work. So now they can come home and talk about what they did at the garage,” Lewis says. There’s no requirement to be there a certain amount of time. 

People can come and go as their schedule permits. It’s totally free to participate, there’s no reporting to agencies you may currently be involved with, and no diagnoses are required for you to be involved. The goal is just to give you the skills you need to keep your mind right.

There are some caveats. Participation is only available for either current or former servicemembers, first responders, or family members of those who died in the line of duty. Also, this isn’t a shop where you can drop off your ’32 Ford with a list of upgrades you want. They don’t do repair work for hire, certify anyone in a particular trade, or foot the bill for the parts you might need. 

However, they’ll supply all the supporting material needed to complete a project, i.e. sandblasting, welding, paint guns, etc. Guardian Garage is there to work on something you brought in or collaborate with others on their respective activities to ultimately acquire the knowledge necessary to perform those same tasks in your own garage and maintain that productivity.

If you’re in the Phoenix metro area or want to at least come down and check them out, Guardian Garage is certainly doing more than just repurposing old stuff to make it functional again. The point is to help volunteers get creative and release the endorphins that’ll get them out of a negative headspace. 

“When you were a kid, you made stuff, right? Everybody’s got a little bit of artistic ability. They may have lost it as they grew older, but you can recover that in here,” Lewis says. “It doesn’t matter what it looks like, it’s the process of making it. It’s not about the project, it’s about the person.” 

Trauma is very real and often only understood by those who’ve experienced it. God knows how many ruined marriages, suicides, and chemical dependency Guardian Garage’s efforts are preventing. Although no one there is a trained therapist, they know what they’re doing works and have the testimonials from participants and family members alike to back it up. 

Having a safe environment to learn, build, laugh, and clear the weeds off your soul not only makes Guardian Garage a hub of artistic endeavor, it’s also probably saving just as many human lives as it is mechanical ones. 

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