This Barbecue Restaurant Owner Donates Cars to Those in Need

“He handed me the keys and didn’t ask for anything.”

Eliot Middleton working on a car; looking at the engine of a car with its hood openCourtesy Eliot Middleton
Middleton fine-tuning a donated car

Christmas 2020 was shaping up to be a heartbreaker for Melanie Lee. A few weeks earlier, her 33-year-old son had lost his battle with a long illness. Then the transmission on her 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe conked out. She had no means of paying for it to be fixed.

“When it broke down, I broke down,” Lee told CNN. “Now I don’t have my baby, now I don’t have transportation. How am I supposed to stay active in my grandchildren’s lives?”

Enter Eliot Middleton, 38, the owner of a barbecue restaurant and former auto mechanic who, in his free time, repairs and gives away used cars. He’d heard about Lee’s predicament from her nephew Frank McClary, the mayor of Andrews, South Carolina (population 3,000). On Christmas morning, Middleton showed up unannounced at Lee’s home with a gift: a white 1993 Oldsmobile.

“I had no idea what was going on,” said Lee. “He handed me the keys and didn’t ask for anything.” Once again, she’s able to pick up her granddaughters from school and take them to dance class. “I got my freedom back.”

The idea for the used car giveaway came to Middleton a year earlier during a food drive he’d organized. Many of those who’d lined up for a meal walked up to four miles to get there because they didn’t have cars.

Cars are a lifeline in this part of South Carolina, Middleton told CBS. “There’s no public transportation, no Ubers, no taxis” to take people to job interviews, doctor appointments, even food shopping. So he posted on Facebook an offer to trade slabs of his restaurant’s specialty, barbecued ribs, for broken-down vehicles. Since then, friends and strangers have dropped off more than 100 cars in various states of disrepair. Many sit in Middleton’s yard waiting to be patched up and donated, usually to those he’s heard about through word of mouth. It’s a list of names that grows daily.

“People think Eliot is an angel,” Mayor McClary told the Washington Post. “And I do too.”

Next, read about this elementary school teacher who pledges to donate one million books.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest

Andy Simmons
Andy Simmons is a features editor at Reader's Digest.