In November 2019, restaurant entrepreneur Eliot Middleton organized a food drive to donate 250 boxes of his delicious barbecue to struggling members of his neighboring community of McClellanville, South Carolina. When Middleton exhausted his food supply, and word began to spread there were no more meals, he noticed something strange.
As people began to dissipate, they did not get into their cars to drive home. They walked. After speaking with some of the unfed patrons, Middleton discovered most of them had trudged as much as four miles just for the prospect of getting a free hot meal.
“That was a turning point in my life when I made the decision to actively give my time and skills to give back to my community,” Middleton said in a recent interview with CNN.
When Middleton references his skills, he’s not just talking about barbecue wizardry. Before he launched a food truck that became Middleton & Maker Village Barbecue, Middleton was a mechanic. He learned the trade from his father and the two of them had operated a father-son shop for a decade until the senior Middleton took sick and the junior Middleton found his calling in the food industry.
His new charitable venture leverages both of these skills. He trades plates of his barbecue to anyone willing to donate a broken-down vehicle. He then fixes the vehicle and gives it to someone who needs it.
As of early July, Middleton had turned 30 clunkers into working vehicles for people in the community, and had a 40-person waitlist, but his workload is about to skyrocket. After CBS Evening News ran a story highlighting his charitable work, more than 800 vehicles were donated to Middleton’s Village to Village Foundation.
For Middleton, each one of these clunkers represents far more than the ability to drive a few miles for a free plate of ribs. It’s about freedom and opportunity, especially for people in rural areas, like McClellanville, with little public transportation.
“You don’t have a car; you don’t have a career. How will people who have no reliable buses, no Ubers, travel to the city, where they would be able to find bigger jobs at the port authorities or manufacturing centers? They can’t walk 40, 50, 60 miles to great jobs – they have to settle for small-end jobs that pay well below what they need to survive. Giving someone a car can change all that, and it does change all that,” Middleton told CNN.
And, he doesn’t have to look far for a real-life example to prove his point.
Middleton donated his very first car – a 1997 Toyota Camry – to an unemployed single mom of two, including a disabled child who needed regular medical appointments. Two months after receiving the vehicle she landed a job, bought a new car, and gave the donated vehicle back to Middleton to pay it forward to another person in need.
“That blew me away,” recalled Middleton.
For Middleton, like many of the people he helps, his path to success was neither paved nor easy. He signed the contract for his restaurant three days before the nation went full lockdown due to COVID and just weeks after burying his father, who had lost a lengthy battle with illness. He could have shut himself off from the outside world and simply focused on taking care of his own. (He has two young daughters.)
Instead, Middleton hustled, “pivoting to drive-throughs, deliveries and curbside to stay afloat;” and he never stopped giving to others, which he found rewarding and healing on a number of levels.
“I like working on cars with a lot of problems because that’s my time to relate to my father, speak with him, because that’s what we’ve always done together,” Middleton said. “It makes me feel like he’s right there. It’s helping me as much as it’s helping the people I give the cars to because this is allowing me to cope with the fact that my dad’s not here anymore.”
There are so many inspiring aspects of this story. There’s the idea that something once destined for the scrap heap can be made useful again and change someone’s life for the better; the idea that grief can be channeled into something productive, helping both giver and receiver; the idea that one spontaneous act of generosity can lead to another, and so on, ultimately creating opportunities for individuals where they were lacking before.
But for me, the most beautiful and inspiriting part of this story is the creative and innovative drive of one person who saw a problem and found a way to fix it. No government program, big grant proposal, or complicated business plan. It’s just a man with skills he found a way to use, people jumping in to help him use them, and a whole community growing stronger as a result. Well done!