Cars of Christmas Giveaway Spreads Cheer in Tampa Bay

BROOKSVILLE – The showroom at AutoWay Ford Lincoln Mercury was packed. Employees had selected the perfect vehicle, inspected it and buffed it like new. Then, they gave it away.

The new owner, Samantha Smith, 25, looked over the 2001 Mazda MPV on Monday and smiled. She has never owned a vehicle, and it had become increasingly difficult to work or attend college without a set of wheels.

“Wow,” she said softly. “This is mine.”

Smith is one of 13 people in the Tampa Bay region to receive a car as part of AutoWay’s “13 Cars of Christmas Giveaway.” The automobile dealership has partnered with Wheels of Success, a nonprofit organization that helps people continue working by helping them secure a reliable vehicle or repair their own.

Smith’s son, 3-year-old Tyler, was certain the gift came from Santa. With a boost, he climbed in and took a seat.

But the folks at AutoWay weren’t done yet. In the back of the minivan sat another car, this one kid-sized.

“We wanted to do something to change a person’s life,” Joe Petrillo, AutoWay’s Florida market president, said. “We wanted to make a difference at the local level to families in our stores’ communities.”

Smith, who lives in Brooksville and works as a certified nursing assistant at HealthSouth in Spring Hill, now can also attend evening classes at Pasco-Hernando Community College and move closer to her goal of becoming a physical therapist.

Wheels of Success founder and CEO Susan Jacobs said the nonprofit hasn’t traditionally operated in Hernando County. But if other cars are donated in the community, the group will keep working here, she said.

Off to the side, in a T-shirt and black slacks, Samantha’s mother, Nellie Smith, 48, beamed. Watching her daughter move closer to achieving her own dreams was her dream, too.

“She deserves it,” she said. “She’s a hard worker.”

Times staffer Keri Wiginton contributed to this report. Shary Lyssy Marshall can be reached at

Shary Lyssy Marshall | St. Petersburg Times