A quick doctor's visit months ago turned into a life-changing event that culminated Saturday, and it was all due to the courage to ask for help.
Air Force veteran Melanie Harris, 31, drove off in a refurbished 2013 Volkswagen Jetta on Saturday afternoon from Keri Coach Works in Westbury as a recipient of the National Auto Body Council's Recycled Rides program.
She smiled ear to ear, laughed and jumped into the charcoal-gray car as her loved ones and community members smiled, cheered and laughed with her.
After years of taking public buses and Uber rides, she never imagined being handed a car to help get around, she said.
"I literally didn't know I was going to end up getting this car as a result of going in for a checkup and saying I need help," said Harris of Floral Park. She said medical staff told her about the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the organization that eventually nominated her to be a recipient of a "recycled ride."
The program teams together collision industry professionals to revamp damaged vehicles to donate to individuals and service organizations in need. Randy Pullman, owner of the collision repair shop Keri Coach Works, collaborated with car insurance provider Geico, which donated the car, and Nassau BOCES Joseph M. Barry Career and Technical Education Center to get the Jetta ready for Harris.
"Randy delivered this car to us with no doors and whole right side of it was damaged," said Jon Gaare, a teacher at the technical education center based in Westbury. Over two months, 35 students helped restore the car.
Tire Town of Freeport donated four tires and a lifetime of oil changes; Parkway Car Stereo of North Babylon installed an auto-start feature; Personal Touch Car Wash of Westbury provided car detailing; VW Platinum of Hicksville gave a spare key; and Enterprise is providing a gas card.
Harris served from 2008 to 2016, six years in the Air Force National Guard as a senior airman and two years in active reserves, during which she was based in Afghanistan and worked on the flight line in electrical systems. She received multiple awards including an Outstanding Unit Award and an Operation Enduring Freedom Award.
While in Afghanistan, she developed a passion for health and fitness and participated in powerlifting matches. Upon her return, she used benefits from the GI Bill to cover the training necessary to become a certified personal trainer. Now she runs her own business, Mel's My Coach, where she trains clients across Nassau County and Queens.
But getting to her clients using buses has been tough, she said. What would take 25 minutes in a car becomes a two-hour bus ride with transfers.
"The car is really going to help me provide more service to other people just because it'll cut down on that travel time," Harris said.
As she stood in front of the car that was soon to be hers Saturday, she was still in disbelief. She said she wants veterans to remember to "always ask for help, you never know what's going to happen."
"A lot of the services are there, it's just about knowing the questions to ask and following up with people. Don't let the information sit. Sometimes you might not even ask the right ones but it'll lead to something else that you didn't know about, like this car," Harris said.