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This kind restaurant owner spends his free time fixing old cars & donating them to people in need

"There's a lack of transportation in the rural areas, and I knew I could use my previous experience in mechanics to help," the 38-year-old explained.

This kind restaurant owner spends his free time fixing old cars & donating them to people in need
Cover Image Source: Facebook/Eliot Desmound Middleton

A 38-year-old restaurateur has become something of a messiah in rural South Carolina by fixing up used cars in his spare time and giving them to people in need. Eliot Middleton—a restaurant owner and former auto mechanic—started the initiative after recognizing that transportation is a big issue in the area. Over the past nine months, he has gifted restored cars to 33 people. "There's a lack of transportation in the rural areas, and I knew I could use my previous experience in mechanics to help," Middleton told The Washington Post.


He explained that the idea to fix and donate old vehicles to those who need them came to him in early 2020 after he hosted a food drive. Several local families who showed up for the drive walked over four miles to get a hot meal since they had no other means of transportation. Middleton put out a call on Facebook asking for junk cars "with potential" to "help folks in need of transportation in rural areas that don't have bus transit or taxi cabs or even Uber." He later pledged to trade his specialty, barbecued ribs, in exchange for broken-down vehicles.


"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 far, Middleton has received nearly 100 donated vehicles. He revealed that there are at least 20 clunkers in his yard on any given day. At one point "we had 57 cars at my house," said Middleton, who co-owns Middleton & Maker Village BBQ, a restaurant in the neighboring town of Awendaw, S.C.


While some of the donated cars only require simple fixes like new tires or an oil change to be in working condition, others need a complete overhaul. In the case of vehicles that are in really bad shape, Middleton harvests the parts to be repurposed. "My dad was a mechanic, and I would hang out around his shop since I was 4 years old," Middleton shared. "I've always been fascinated by cars." After graduating from high school, Middleton trained to become an auto mechanic, and in 2004, opened an auto service with his father. It was then, he said, that he first realized the utter lack of transportation support in rural communities.


"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 we never had the chance to sit down and figure something out." As Middleton's father's health began to decline, the duo had to close the shop in 2014. Since barbecuing has always been a side passion for Middleton, he then decided to pursue it professionally. However, the idea of repairing used vehicles for people in need remained a shared goal for Middleton and his father.


Although they received the first donated car in January 2020, several concerns in their personal lives—including Middleton’s father's death in March 2020—took priority. "Things started changing in my life, and I couldn't focus on the car program the way I wanted to," said Middleton. By September 2020, though, he felt ready. 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. "She was astonished about the car being hers and she was crying," said Middleton, explaining that he heard about the woman's financial difficulties through a mutual friend on Facebook and offered to surprise her with the car.


"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,'" he recalled. Middleton's generosity completely changed the woman's life. Within two months, she was able to land a stable job. She recently contacted Middleton to say that wanted to donate the car he gave her back to him as she'd bought herself a new one. "That blew me away," Middleton said. As his initiative continued to gain momentum, Middleton—who was funding the repairs out of his own pocket—set up a nonprofit called Middleton's Village to Village to bolster the effort.


Middleton's waitlist of people needing cars grows by the day as those in need contact him directly explaining their situation and others ask to surprise friends or family members with a car. According to local officials, the car program has had an effect on their small towns. In October, Middleton's efforts were recognized with the Jefferson Award, a national honor bestowed upon Americans who exhibit exceptional public service. "People think Eliot is an angel, and I do, too," said Frank McClary, the mayor of Andrews S.C. "You'd think he has a team behind him, but it's just him and it blows me away."


"Somehow, someway, he is finding the energy to be a great father and a great community leader, and it’s absolutely mind-boggling to see what he can do," McClary continued. However, Middleton insists that the program wouldn't have been possible without the support from the rural South Carolina community. "It's been a real team effort," he said, adding that some people have also dropped off food and volunteered their time to assist with repairs. "I can't express how much the support means to me. It has been a wonderful, life-altering experience, and we're just getting started. My dad might not be here, but I feel him right here with me. He would be very proud."

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