LAKELAND, Fla. — Alisha Rousset will not forget her daughter’s sixth birthday.

“It was December 21,” she said as she described her big surprise. “I started crying. Tears of joy. My life was about to change.”

Little Gabriella wasn’t the only one to get a gift that day. Alisha, a mother of four and Army veteran, was given a free car from the family-owned Carstar auto body shop in Lakeland. The 2011 Toyota Corolla had less than 30,000 miles on it.

“We were Ubering and having to get rides from people,” said Alisha, who was without a car for nine months. “It was very hard.”

The car is now hers because of a program called Recycled Rides. It’s overseen by the National Auto Body Council. Essentially, totaled cars are given to auto body shops to be fixed up and given away to veterans in need. Often, they come at just the right time.

For the families at CARSTAR, the patriotic aspect makes participating in the Recycled Rides effort even more appealing.

“We’re all about that,” said Patrick Cullaton.

In 2015, his son, Corey Cullaton, was looking for an eagle scout project. Inspired by his grandfather’s love for cars and work with Purple Heart recipients, Corey found a few old clunkers and restored them for a good cause.

It reignited a passion at the family business to help others in need.

“It seemed like a fixable car,” Corey recalled. “It was a definite payout to see the two ladies that I gave the cars to, their expressions and their joy.”

Since then, CARSTAR has been steady in its car giveaways to veterans. They find worthy recipients through organizations like the Purple Heart, Clarks House, and Society of St. Vincent De Paul.

“You just feel it more and you know these people deserve it,” said Kevin Eggleston, whose son, Mark, is a 17-year Army veteran. “It’s a good feeling.”

Eggleston has worked in the collision industry for over 50 years. He preps cars for painting and helps with odd jobs around the CARSTAR campus. CARSTAR in Lakeland has given away ten cars to veterans over the years.

“We wanted to help out our community,” said Heather Cullaton. “Transportation and housing is one of the biggest struggles veterans have, especially those who have families.

“I think we take it for granted, our transportation.”

In addition to the new wheels, Alisha’s Corolla was filled with birthday and Christmas presents for her kids by the students in the Central Florida Aerospace Academy’s ROTC program. There were so many gifts that her kids wouldn’t fit in the car. It was a blessing that has led to a close relationship with the families at CARSTAR.

Alisha served in the Army from 2006-2008.

“It shows that people value our service,” she said, still shocked to be the owner of her silver car. “I would have taken purple with pink polka dots.”

Alisha and Heather hugged in the parking lot. They hadn’t seen each other since that December 21 giveaway. CARSTAR hopes to contribute 2-3 recycled rides per year.

“I can’t wait until the next one,” said Heather.

CARSTAR will give away its next Recycled Ride on April 12 in Orlando.

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