Ciara finally catches a break

Ciara Charles will do anything to see her little sister, even learn to drive a stick shift.

Friday morning, the 18-year-old hopped out of a friend's minivan and saw her new ride for the first time: a shiny red 1992 Mazda B2200 five-speed pickup.

Within an hour, she had mastered the hand-and-foot coordination required to use the clutch and gearshift. It was a new experience and tricky at moments, but it was nothing compared to the challenges she's faced so far.

A handful of people had worked to give the truck to Charles, who has spent much of her life in foster homes, so she can visit her sister, 11-year-old Patricia Hardman.

Because Charles lives in New Port Richey and her sister lives in a foster home in southern St. Petersburg, the sisters see each other only about an hour a month in a neutral location. Because of privacy laws, Charles doesn't even know the address of Patricia's foster home.

It was Elyse McGuire's idea to help get Charles a car.

As a guardian ad litem — a volunteer who acts as an advocate for abused, neglected or abandoned children in the court system — McGuire, 40, has seen Charles struggle for normalcy and get beaten back at every turn.

"It seemed like there were so many obstacles (for her),'' McGuire said.

• • •

Charles was born in Kansas City, Mo., to a mother and father who were both 16 at the time.

She said her mother had been "bounced around foster care'' and abused. Her father now lives in Utah. She hasn't seen him for 15 years.

Charles has lived in six foster homes and one group home.

A senior at River Ridge High School in New Port Richey, she has "aged out" of the foster care system — meaning she turned 18 — and now has to pay $560 a month to rent a room in the home of her former foster mother.

To pay for that as well as food and clothing, she works part time for a promotions company handing out fliers and promoting acts at clubs.

Until Friday, she paid friends for rides.

• • •

Charles didn't know it, but for almost half her life, a little red pickup with gray stripes sat unused in a driveway in the Bardmoor area of Largo.

Perry Piloneo had bought it new in 1992.

He loved the vehicle and drove it everywhere.

"It was his favorite car,'' said his widow, Helen Piloneo, 69.

In 2000, Perry Piloneo was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died within three months at age 63.

Helen Piloneo had no idea how to drive a stick-shift, so the two-door pickup never went anywhere again — until recently.

Helen Piloneo donated it to the Suncoast Voices for Children Foundation, which helps abused and neglected youth in Pinellas and Pasco Counties.

McGuire asked Kevin McGrath, owner of Fleet Street Remarketing on Seminole Boulevard, which resells corporate vehicles, if he could get the pickup road-ready.

McGrath was happy to help.

He gave the pickup new brakes and tires, repaired the air conditioner, detailed it and even paid for Charles' registration and license plate.

"We didn't want to turn over the car unless it was safe,'' said Sandra Killian, president of the board of directors for Suncoast Voices for Children.

Although it had 130,000 miles on it, it looked nearly new, save for a small tear in the driver's seat.

Why did McGrath do it?

He has an idea of what Charles is going through.

His own parents arrived on Ellis Island — at different times — with just $25 in their pockets.

His grandmother starved to death on a street in Limerick, Ireland.

"I'm hoping I can make a difference for a kid who doesn't have the advantages other kids have,'' said McGrath, who has no children of his own.

McGrath also promised Charles that if she makes the dean's list every quarter in college, he will pay for her textbooks.

Charles said she plans to attend Pasco-Hernando Community College and then transfer to the University of South Florida. She has been in foster care long enough that the state will pick up the tab.

She said she wants to study the performing arts or culinary arts.

"I also thought about going into the service, the Navy,'' she said. "I like to travel.''

• • •

On Friday afternoon, she traveled to the parking lot of St. Petersburg College with Fleet Street general manager John Ferraro, 46, who offered to teach her to drive the stick.

She climbed in the driver's seat and put her foot on a clutch for the first time. McGuire looked on nervously.

But Charles drove around the lot remarkably smoothly for a first-timer.

In less than five minutes, Ferraro announced, "She's got it.''

"My job is done,'' he said.

Seconds later, Charles stalled the truck.

It was bound to happen.

But soon she was driving the little red pickup on Ulmerton Road.

Helen Piloneo said she was "pretty sure" someone was taking in the whole scene from above — Perry Piloneo. The person who loved the little red pickup most of all.

Eileen Schulte can be reached at schulte@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4153.

>>FAST FACTS

To help a child

• Guardian ad Litem volunteers speak on behalf of abused, abandoned or neglected children and teens in the court system. The guardians typically spend four to six hours a month visiting a child, learning about their case and making recommendations to the court to help ensure that the child has a safe, caring and stable environment. More than 900 children in Pinellas need a guardian ad litem. To learn more, call (727) 464-6528 or visit www.guardianadlitem6.org.

• To donate a car to Suncoast Voices for Children, call (727) 582-3668 or visit www.suncoastchildren.org.

Ciara finally catches a break 04/05/08 [Last modified: Saturday, April 5, 2008 5:32am]

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