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Photo: Lauren Petracca/PostAndCourier.
Eliot Middleton (right) and Matthew Poston remove an engine from a truck they are fixing up for donation in McClellanville, South Carolina, on May 10, 2021.

The roots of today’s story were planted in a strong relationship between a South Carolina father and son who knew how to repair cars.

Sydney Page reported at the Washington Post in July, “On Christmas Day last year, Eliot Middleton showed up unannounced at Melanie Lee’s home in Andrews, S.C., with a white 1993 Oldsmobile. What happened next shocked her: Middleton, whom she had never met before, put the key to the Oldsmobile in her hand. He didn’t charge her a dime. He just gave her the car, no strings attached.

‘I had no idea what was going on,’ said Lee, 59. ‘He handed me the keys and didn’t ask for anything.’

“She is one of 33 people Middleton has gifted with a car in the past nine months. Middleton, 38, is a restaurant owner and former auto mechanic who spends his spare time repairing used cars and giving them to people in need in rural South Carolina.

“ ‘There’s a lack of transportation in the rural areas, and I knew I could use my previous experience in mechanics to help,’ Middleton said.

“Only a few weeks before Middleton dropped off the car, Lee’s 33-year-old son, who was ill for several years, passed away. After driving daily for two hours to and from the hospital in Charleston to visit him, her 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe broke down.

“She took the car to a shop to replace the transmission, but ‘I had no means of paying for it,’ she said. She needed a car to help with child care for her two granddaughters, who are 12 and 6 and rely on her to pick them up from school every day and drive them to dance rehearsal. …

“The idea to fix and donate old vehicles came spontaneously to Middleton in early 2020, after he hosted a food drive and several local families showed up with no transportation. They walked more than four miles to get a hot meal. …

“ ‘There’s no public transportation in the area whatsoever,’ said Middleton, who lives in McClellanville, a small fishing town on the Atlantic coast with a population of about 600. ‘We don’t have taxis and Ubers. Without a car, people don’t have a way to get around.’

“So, Middleton — who co-owns Middleton & Maker Village BBQ, a restaurant in the neighboring town of Awendaw, S.C. — decided to put his auto mechanic skills to use the two days a week he isn’t at the restaurant. [As of July], nearly 100 vehicles have been donated for him to fix up. …

“Before jumping into the restaurant industry, Middleton worked as an auto mechanic for 15 years. As a young boy in McClellanville, his plan was to follow in his father’s footsteps.

“ ‘My dad was a mechanic, and I would hang out around his shop since I was 4 years old,’ Middleton said. ‘I’ve always been fascinated by cars.’

“After he graduated from high school, Middleton trained to become an auto mechanic, and in 2004, he and his father opened their own auto service. …

“ ‘We had a lot of single moms as customers, and we always ran into problems with them not having enough funds,’ Middleton recalled. ‘We spoke about trying to find a way to help them,’ [but] whenever they started to brainstorm ideas, something got in the way. Middleton’s father’s health began to decline, and in 2014, they closed the shop. Barbecuing has always been a side passion for Middleton, he said, so he decided to change course and pursue it professionally.

“Still, despite leaving the auto industry, the notion of repairing used vehicles for people in need remained a shared goal for Middleton and his father. But after receiving the first donated car in January 2020, several things in their lives took priority, including Middleton’s father’s failing health — he died in March 2020. Around the same time, Middleton opened a restaurant, just as the coronavirus pandemic was taking hold.

“ ‘Things started changing in my life, and I couldn’t focus on the car program the way I wanted to,’ said Middleton, who has two daughters, ages 14 and 8.

“By September 2020, though, Middleton felt ready, with fresh motivation to honor his father’s legacy. He repaired the first car — a 1997 navy Toyota Camry — and gave it to an unemployed single mother of two children, one of whom is disabled and requires regular medical appointments. …

” ‘That felt great. I could feel my dad’s presence around me, and I could hear him saying “this is exactly what we always wanted to do.” ‘

“Within two months, the same woman was able to land a stable job, and she recently contacted Middleton to say she bought herself a new car and is donating the one he gave her back to him.

“ ‘That blew me away,’ Middleton said.”

More at the Post, here.

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