CIF Donation Helps Military Veteran Restore His Sense of Purpose After Retirement

Sterling Keith with his antique truck
Sterling Keith

Military veteran Sterling Keith and his wife, Rebecca, found they were facing some unexpected challenges in 2014. Sterling was suffering from traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Meanwhile, Rebecca was unable to work due to health issues.

As part of Sterling’s medical retirement process, he was helping to restore a WWII ambulance with Operation Comfort. The organization works “to promote an inclusive and positive environment where wounded, ill and injured service members of all service branches, active duty and veteran, as well as their immediate family can recover and get involved in the community.” When the organization learned that Sterling’s work tools were stolen during one of his deployments to Iraq, they reached out to the Collision Industry Foundation (CIF).

Established in 2001, the charitable foundation is dedicated to raising, managing and donating funds to provide emergency relief to collision repair professionals who have been impacted by natural disasters or other catastrophic events. Michael Quinn, president of the CIF Board of Trustees and senior vice president at AirPro Diagnostics, is passionate about the work CIF performs.

“Providing assistance to our industry families fills a vital need, helping them recover from whatever disaster they are faced with,” said Quinn. “We are proud to carry on this work on behalf of the industry.”

When CIF volunteers heard of Sterling’s situation, Quinn said they contacted Snap-On for assistance.

“Snap-On generously collaborated with CIF to replace Sterling’s tools as well as provide a custom toolbox for him,” said Quinn.

They presented the toolbox to Sterling in 2015 during the Collision Industry Conference (CIC) in Palm Springs, CA.

Shortly after, Sterling was told by Veteran’s Affairs and the U.S. Army that he could no longer work in the auto body industry. Since then, he has used the tools to restore Model A cars and trucks where they live in Texas.

“When I retired, I felt useless and went into a very deep depression,” said Sterling. “Receiving the tools has given me purpose again and pulled me out of my depression. I’ve gone from seeing no future to being excited about life again.”

Sterling’s military career spans three decades, first in the U.S. Navy where he served during Desert Storm. During this time, he also graduated from Nashville Auto Diesel College and began working in the auto body repair industry. He then joined the U.S. Army where he was deployed four more times with the National Guard in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

When he returned from his last deployment in 2010, he was offered a full-time position with the Army, which he accepted and worked until his medical retirement process began.

Rebecca said CIF’s donation of the tools has changed their lives. Since retiring, Sterling has been able to spend time focusing on automotive projects. In October 2019, he entered a 1961 Harley Davidson and Model A truck he restored in the Texas Masonic Retirement Center (TMRC) Family Day/Annual Classic Car & Motorcycle Show in Arlington, TX, and received first place for the bike and third place for the truck.

“None of this would be possible without the very generous donation through CIF,” said Rebecca. “It gave him the tools to restore cars and trucks and bikes, but in turn that restored his sense of purpose after retirement.”

Due to the TBI, Rebecca said Sterling often has challenges remembering things and can get frustrated easily.

“The tools and ability to work on those Model As gives him an outlet for that frustration,” said Rebecca. “Seeing him so much more relaxed and genuinely happy has had a profound effect on our whole family. The stress is not all the way gone, but we have learned many more ways of handling the stress.”

Petra Schroeder, the secretary on CIF’s board of trustees, recalls when she first talked to the Keiths and learned about their situation.

“It was a heartbreaking story,” said Schroeder. “Initially, they were both devasted when they found out he couldn’t work anymore. We have learned in many ways that if you have some kind of issue, mentally or physically, if you get your mind off of the particular situation, it will help the overall healing process.”

Schroeder said it is rewarding for CIF to help those in need.

“The Collision Industry Foundation is there to help our brothers and sisters in the industry,” she said.

Sterling and Rebecca both highly recommend that industry members faced with catastrophic events reach out to CIF for assistance.

“Anyone within the industry can fall on hard times, suffer from a natural disaster, or find themselves in need for various other reasons,” said Sterling.

“CIF has numerous contacts who can assist with helping those individuals get back on their feet, get back on track and find a renewed sense of purpose in their lives,” added Rebecca. “We hope to spread the word to never give up and keep working towards your goals even if those goals have to change along the way.”

The couple recently attended the 10th annual CIF Gala held in Palm Springs, CA, following the CIC meeting in January. This year, the gala took place at a larger venue, The Bank, and Schroeder said there was record attendance. In addition to holding a silent auction to raise funds, a special drawing was held to win a “Big Green Egg Smoker” package donated by Nexsyis.

“The CIF Gala was just amazing,” said Sterling. “It was an honor to be able to attend. We met so many people and made new friends.”

Rebecca said, “It was a very big self-esteem boost for Sterling to have so many people admire his work on the Model As and his overall progress.”

Schroeder and the Keiths have stayed in touch after their initial meeting five years ago.

“When I saw Sterling again at the gala event in Palm Springs, it was really priceless to me to see the smile back in his eyes,” said Schroeder.

CIF encourages anyone in the industry who knows of a colleague in need to reach out to CIF.

“Just one call, email or text is enough to alert a small team within CIF who will get together and discuss what is possible to help,” said Schroeder. “When disaster happens, we would like for everybody in the country to be our boots on the ground and help us find victims of these natural disasters we can assist,” said Schroeder.

There are several ways to support CIF and those in the collision repair industry. Online forms are available on the CIF website for yearly, quarterly, monthly and one-time donations; Schroeder said that two CIF donors recently set up recurring monthly donations.

CIF can also supported by shopping on Amazon Smile! After signing up, a small portion of purchases (0.5%) goes to CIF.

In addition, members of the industry have taken initiative to find ways to bring awareness to CIF, such as Dave Luehr of Elite body Shop Solutions, who held a birthday fundraiser on Facebook and Frank Terlep who is donating a portion of the proceeds from every paperback he sells of his new book, “Auto Industry Disruption: Who and What is Being Disrupted and What to Do About It!”

For more information about CIF and how to donate, visit https://www.collisionindustryfoundation.org.

Stacey Phillips Ronak

Columnist
Stacey Phillips Ronak is an award-winning writer for the automotive industry and a regular columnist for Autobody News based in Southern California.

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