Less than a year after his death, Middleton, 38, now a restaurant owner, is honoring his father’s legacy by fixing junk cars and donating them to people throughout rural South Carolina, where public transportation is sparse.
“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?” Middleton told CNN. “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.”
So far, he’s collected 100 cars and surprised 33 community members with a repaired ride — without asking for a single thing in return.
“Giving someone a car can change all that, and it does change all that,” he said. “I want to help everybody looking to better themselves when transportation is what’s holding them back.”
Middleton said the idea to gift vehicles to people in need came to him in November 2019, when he organized a food drive to distribute 250 boxes of his barbeque.
When he ran out of boxes, he walked outside to see how many people were still waiting for food and saw a line two blocks long.
“That’s when I noticed most of those people just started walking back to the other side of town,” he said. “I caught up with some of them and found out they had walked three or four miles to get there to receive food, but couldn’t make it in time because they had no cars and they had to walk. I was very distraught to see that.”
“That was the turning point in my life when I made the decision to actively give my time and skills to give back to my community.”
‘He’s a special kind of godsend’
Melanie Lee remembers spending four months driving her 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe hours back and forth to visit her son, who was lying in a hospital bed fighting for his life.
One week after burying him in November 2020, Lee’s car, worn out from all the road miles, broke down, leaving her unable to visit the children her son left behind.
“When it broke down, I broke down,” Lee, 59, 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? How do I do anything?”
Without reliable transportation, Lee said she couldn’t even go to the grocery store or church.
Middleton heard Lee’s story from her nephew Frank McClary, the mayor of Andrews, and decided to offer her one of his cars.
A few weeks later, on Christmas morning, Lee’s family gently ushered her to the door, where she saw Middleton pull into her driveway with a white 1993 Oldsmobile.
“I was so overwhelmed,” Lee said. “Like, who does that? Who comes on Christmas morning, gives you a car, gives you the keys, gives you the title, no strings attached? I felt like I won, and I had never won anything in my life before.”
After lots of tears, hugs, and thank-you’s, Lee felt a little bit more ready to start the next chapter in her life.
“I got my freedom back,” she said. “Eliot is a godsend. He’s a special kind of godsend. What Eliot is doing is purposeful. That car to me is a real true blessing.”
Healing himself and others through charity
Middleton wakes up early five days a week to prep his restaurant in Awendaw for business. He cooks up ham, turkey, candied yams, green beans and fresh collards. But his most popular dish is grilled ribs, which people come from all over to try.
On the two days he has off, Middleton spends time with his two daughters or bent over a car, fixing it just the way his father taught him.
For 17 years, Middleton and his dad, Kevin Wayne Middleton Sr., worked alongside each other, even starting their own mechanic shop in 2004. They ran it for 10 years, until Middleton opened a food truck — the beginning of Middleton’s Village BBQ.
But in mid-February 2020, his father became severely ill, and died just weeks after.
“My life started changing very fast,” Middleton said. “My dad died and just weeks later after I buried my father, I signed the contract for the restaurant in March three days before the United States went into a restaurant lockdown because of the pandemic. It was very stressful, like, what have I done? What am I going to do?”
Middleton had no time to mourn. Instead, he poured all his energy into the restaurant, pivoting to drive-thru, deliveries and curbside pickup to stay afloat.
It wasn’t until September 2020, when he started repairing cars for strangers, that he began to heal.
“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.”
Committed to his community
Middleton said he believes it’s important to help everyone, but he has a soft spot for good, hardworking people in the rural South, whom he says society often forgets.
“We need to remember communities that have been forgotten,” he said. “People recognize major cities and forget our rural towns, and the people in them that need some help. They’re people, they’re Americans, and we should be taking care of them.”
For Middleton, helping strangers isn’t just something nice to do — it’s his calling.
“I’m happy Eliot is finally getting the recognition he deserves, and it’s crazy because I know he never expected this to become so big,” Mike Jennings, who has been friends with Middleton for eight years, told CNN. “It’s beyond his wildest dreams and it’s awesome to be able to see it. We’re all so grateful for him and so proud of him.”
Jennings, 31, also a mechanic, was so inspired by Middleton that he began helping his friend fix cars for strangers.
In November 2020, Jennings’ own car broke down. At the time, finances were tight because of the coronavirus pandemic. He couldn’t afford to repair the car and still support his fiancée, who lost her job, and 4-year-old daughter.
Still, he always showed up at Middleton’s side, cheerful and excited to be a part of his project.
One day in December, as Jennings was cleaning up a 2000 Subaru Forester they had just finished repairing, Middleton turned to him and said, “That’s your Subaru, Mike.”
“I was so shocked, I never expected it,” Jennings said. “It was very touching for Eliot to think of me too. It really meant so much to me. I didn’t have to worry about how to get to work, or rely on people anymore. I was really struggling and he helped ease that so much.”
After losing his job last week, Jennings got even more help from his good friend.
“A lot of people turn to their pastors or psychiatrists to open up about their situations, but others turn to their communities,” Middleton said. “That’s what I’m here for, to always be here for my community whether it’s for advice or to talk or fix up cars for them. I’ll always be taking care of my people.”