McCLELLANVILLE — When it came time for Eliot Middleton to get a driver’s license, his father, a mechanic, gave him two cars.
The catch, said Middleton, was that neither car worked. One needed an engine and the other needed a transmission, and it was up to him to make one working car out of the two.
He succeeded, and after graduating from Lincoln High School he trained to become an auto mechanic, then spent years working in or operating repair and transmission shops in the Charleston area.
These days Middleton, 38, co-owns and operates a barbeque restaurant in Awendaw, but he’s putting his automotive experience to good use. He repairs donated vehicles and gives them to people who need one through a nonprofit he established.
“This gives me a chance to work on cars again, at my own pace,” Middleton said.
At his mother’s blue cinderblock home in McClellanville, where Middleton also lives with his two children, the yard is full of donated vehicles in various stages of repair. It’s a rural setting with chickens wandering about and no roof over the vehicles, so weather can play a role in the pace of auto repair work.
Middleton said the first donated vehicle came in January 2020, and about 90 more have followed. Some are stored at friends’ properties while 28 have been repaired and given to the needy.
Like the two vehicles Middleton received as a young man with a fresh driver’s license, some of the cars, pickups and minivans on the property will be given new life while others will be stripped for parts and sold to junkyards.
“There are 28 families out there whose lives totally changed just because I did what I know how to do,” Middleton said while fellow mechanic Matthew Poston worked to remove an engine from a Ford F-150.
The nonprofit, Middleton’s Village to Village, operates mostly through the foundation’s Facebook page with support from friends and family. In November 2020, the foundation was created as a nonprofit corporation in South Carolina.
The Facebook page features a photograph of a Jefferson Award that the foundation won, and a photo of Middleton walking near Carl Ritchie, Mount Pleasant’s police chief at the time, on a march up the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge following the Emanuel AME Church massacre.
That march was the start of an ongoing connection between Middleton and Ritchie, whose retirement party was held at Middleton & Maker Village BBQ on May 8. In 2018, Mount Pleasant invited Middleton on a trip to Denver for the All-America City awards.
The trip was Middleton’s first time on an airplane. It was also an inspiration, he said, to see the good things some cities were doing to help their communities.
The following year, after winning a barbecue competition in Andrews, Middleton helped with a community Thanksgiving meal in Andrews that served hundreds, and said he observed “there were folks that walked three or four miles to get there.”
Two months later, the first donated vehicle was sitting in his mother’s yard.
Looking back at 2020, the year the pandemic struck was quite a time to launch a nonprofit and also open a new restaurant. Middleton said he signed a lease for the restaurant property on March 17, his birthday.
“Three days later came the shutdown of all restaurants,” Middleton said.
Fortunately, the former Kick’n Horse Saloon property at 5105 U.S. Highway 17 featured a large open-air pavilion. A combination of takeout orders and outdoor dining helped the fledgling restaurant survive.
Meanwhile, Middleton worked on cars during his two days off.
He said the first donated car went to a mother of two in Charleston, who had a disabled child who regularly needed to go to a hospital for treatment.
“The first time they were able to go to the beach was after I gave her a car,” Middleton said.
He said the woman subsequently got a job, was able to buy a car, and now plans to donate the first one back to Middleton’s foundation. The foundation has a growing waiting list of people hoping to get vehicles.
“Someone just called me about a young man who doesn’t have a car any longer,” said Middleton. “He rides a bicycle seven miles to work.”
Reach David Slade at 843-937-5552. Follow him on Twitter @DSladeNews.