Rich Nardiello doesn’t have full use of his left arm and shoulder, and he drags his left leg behind him. But that doesn’t stop him from painting and customizing toy cars for sick kids.
“It takes me a while to get them done," he says. “But it’s worth it when I see the smiles on the kids’ faces.”
Nardiello, 62, refurbishes discarded toy cars — specifically, those ubiquitous, bulbous yellow-and-red “Cozy Coupes,” made by the Little Tikes toy company that seat two and are powered by kids’ feet. He then donates them to children battling cancer.
Using paint, felt, sandpaper, disinfectant, and masking tape, Nardiello customizes the cars to a child’s specs. There was the Batman-themed car with a mask drilled into the top. A cowboy-themed ride, topped with a ten-gallon hat. A Cookie Monster vehicle covered in blue felt pieces, its little trunk filled with a few bags of Chips Ahoy! cookies. A handful of Captain America cars, painted red, white and blue. And even a New Jersey Devils-themed car — which was tough, because Nardiello is a Flyers fan.
“That kid really pushed me,” he jokes.
The grandfather of four calls his operation “PopPop’s Kustom Kars," which he runs out of the basement of the Sewell, N.J. home he shares with his wife, Connie. He has delivered 20 customized cruisers since creating the first in September 2018. And he has dozens of requests for more.
Which he loves — because this hobby has restored him.
In 2012, Nardiello suffered a hemorrhagic stroke that left him in a wheelchair with limited use of his arms and legs. He was also unable to form complete sentences. He faced months of grueling rehab in order to walk and talk again.
“I had to be defiant, I had to have a strong will,” he said, “or I would have died. In rehab, I saw too many people just give up because it’s so hard."
For motivation, he collected photos of sick kids whose inspirational stories had been shared with him. He tacked the photos onto a bulletin board that hung in his basement, right in front of his treadmill.
“How could I not run today when this little girl just beat cancer, and she’s smiling?” he says.
In 2016, Nardiello retired from his job in information technology and threw himself into his hobbies, one of which was restoring old Volkswagens. But the stroke had left him with limited use of his left arm, shoulder, and leg, and he soon found the work too laborious.
So he sold his tools, but he missed tinkering on vehicles. One day, he spied an old Cozy Coupe in a neighbor’s trash and decided to customize it for his Eagles-loving grandson, Vin. He painted it green and black, stuck an Eagles sticker on the front, and glued a helmet decal to the roof. Vin loved it.
Shortly afterward, he learned that a neighbor’s grown child had once battled neuroblastoma, a rare form of pediatric cancer. She beat the disease and would often regale family and friends with stories about the defiant kids she’d met in treatment whose never-say-die attitude had lifted her own spirits. So Nardiello decided to customize Cozy Coupes for such kids, who were the same age as his own Vin.
Thus was born “PopPop’s Kustom Kars."
“I used K’s instead of C’s to help it stand out,” he says.
He connects with recipients and families via referrals from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and two pediatric cancer-support nonprofits — Kisses for Kyle and St. Baldrick’s Foundation.
“He is just fricking incredible, this man," said Sharon Snyder, founder of Kisses for Kyle. “He connects with each family to show them that there’s love out there. He doesn’t have any ulterior motive, he just wants to do something good to put a smile on someone’s face.”
As for the Cozy Coupes, Nardiello finds them discarded in the trash, buys them used via Facebook Marketplace, and also accepts them gratis from families who’ve heard of his mission and feel moved to help.
But he won’t take cash — he finances PopPop’s Kustom Kars out of his own pocket. His past experience volunteering with hospitals and nonprofits opened his eyes to the politics that are often tethered to money-raising operations. He wants none of it.
“I went down that road a long time ago,” he says, his tone implying a world of past headaches.
For some older, bigger kids, he’ll transform bicycles. He’s working on one for a girl whose cancer treatment has required her to undergo 28 painful spinal taps.
“I thought I was a tough guy, but the stories get me every time,” he said. “They’ll rip your heart out.”
Nardiello keeps track of his masterpieces on a poster he has dubbed his “Warrior Board,” which features photos of the children with their new rides, marked with the date they received them.
He finishes one or two Cozy Coupes per month, spray-painting them in his driveway, working as fast as he can with one arm and a lot of persistence. And then he personally delivers the vehicles to the kids, with some exceptions: For a child in Georgia, for example, Nardiello deconstructed the car and shipped it in pieces.
Sometimes, though, a sick child doesn’t survive the wait for his or her customized Cozy Coupe, which has happened eight times, says Nardiello, pointing to the decorated cars in his basement that he never got a chance to deliver. He’s hoping to donate them to hospitals.
Meantime, his basement is full of Cozy Coupes, both finished and unfinished, parked neatly on the concrete floor or hanging on hooks from the ceiling. And he says he has room for more.
“I just hope my wife doesn’t leave me,” he jokes.
For more information about PopPop’s Kustom Kars, email Nardiello at firstname.lastname@example.org.