Cruising toward smiles

Local man customizes toy cars for pediatric cancer patients.

Two cars customized by PopPop himself, Rich Nardiello. (PopPop’s Kustom Kars Facebook page)

One of Rich Nardiello’s favorite hobbies was restoring old Volkswagen buses and beetles. When he suffered a hemorrhagic stroke back in 2012, and left him with minimal use of his left arm, his hobby slowly fell by the wayside.

Nardiello, a Washington Township resident, credits his Italian South Philadelphia heritage as well as Scorpio Zodiac sign as reasons for his defiant nature. In his opinion, this genealogical makeup is the reason he survived his stroke in the first place ,which had a 50 percent mortality rate, according to Nardiello.

Though he can no longer work on Volkswagens, he since found a new hobby, this time involving the most popular car in the year 1991 – the Little Tike Cozy Coupe.

Nardiello customized one of the little red cars with the yellow roof for his grandson, and after making a second one, he decided it was time to take it to the next level.

After speaking with a family friend who was battling pediatric cancer he asked for suggestions on whom he could customize a car for. This is the genesis of PopPop’s Kustom Kars.

“I had two goals from starting what I do – to put a smile on the face of a kid who has childhood cancer and also to raise awareness about childhood cancer. Both of those things are coming true very rapidly, very quickly and expanding,” Nardiello said.

Expanding indeed, the soon-to-be 63-year-old has customized approximately 40 cars since he began this venture in August 2018. He’s personally delivered roughly 15 cars and has formed partnerships with local and nationwide hospitals and clinical care centers to keep his custom cars, anything to put a smile on a kid’s face.
In his short tenure, the only thing he’s more passionate about than putting smiles on faces and raising awareness is his insistence on not accepting monetary donations.
“I never touch money, I refuse to ever touch money,” he said.
Instead, Nardiello has partnered with Sharon Snyder who runs a nonprofit organization called “Kisses for Kyle,” which also raises awareness for childhood cancer in addition to providing support for parents of children suffering from cancer.
Making and customizing cars is half the battle for Nardiello, the other half is raising awareness. He said one in 285 children will be diagnosed with childhood cancer, of those diagnosed there is a 25 percent mortality rate. He said it’s the biggest killer by disease in children between the ages of one and 18.
To put this number in perspective, Nardiello likened the numbers to the average graduating class size from Washington Township High School. If 600 students graduated last year, roughly two children would be diagnosed with pediatric cancer.
“It’s not rare,” he said.
Bringing awareness to this issue is of the utmost importance for Nardiello, which is why he addressed council at its August meeting with the intention of having September recognized as Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. He expects a proclamation to be issued at the Sept. 11 meeting.
One of the ways he brought awareness to the community was by having a local Girl Scout troop help him clean cars before he painted them.
“The best ambassador for children with cancer are other children.”
Nardiello said each car needs to be cleaned and disinfected prior to painting.
“When I think I’m all done with that, I do it again,” he said of the rigorous cleaning process. “The Girl Scouts went through that process too,”
Through social media, Nardiello has made quite an impact, at the global level. He’s made connections in Perth, Australia, and Alberta, Canada, where he’s coaching two groups on how to customize the cars to donate to local hospitals of their own through his kindness car program.
Nardiello, who was never in it for the accolades, likes to keep it simple.
“My endgame is to continue what I’m doing as far as putting smiles on kids’ faces,” he said. “I never thought this kindness car program, as far as in the clinical locations in the U.S. or abroad, would happen. I had it as a thought, but that’s already happened. It’s awareness, too, I’m just one old guy that had a stroke in a basement making cars for kids,”
By putting himself out there and doing his part to make a difference he hopes to be a beacon of light for others.
“There’s so much crap out there that people are exhausted,” Nardiello said. “Maybe it inspires some people to do some things, not save the world, but present a little awareness to what’s going on. I think I’m succeeding in that.”
With mortality rates stacked against him as well as the kids he’s trying to bring awareness to, Nardiello alluded to the defiance he mentioned before.
“It’s part of the defiance, you have to have it. If you’re not born with that DNA, you’re going to roll over and be part of the statistic,” he said.
With the use of social media as well as the partnership with a larger nonprofit like Kisses for Kyle, Nardiello has been able to spread the word about childhood cancer while being able to maintain his behind the scenes work as a car designer. At the end of the day, he holds true to his mission to spread awareness and make folks throughout the Delaware Valley, country and globe aware of the most lethal disease in children – one child’s smile at a time, one kustom kar at a time.
For more information please visit Nardiello’s Facebook page “PopPop’s Kustom Kars” or email rnardiel@comcast.net.