BY ANNE STANTON
TRAVERSE CITY — Kearstin Prevo seemed a bit confused when she saw a large group of smiling young men near a shiny gold van. She had stopped by Northwestern Michigan College's automotive technology building on Aeropark Drive to pick up a part for her mom's car.
Instead of a car part, she was given an ice scraper.
"Now you're going to need something to go along with this ice scraper," said Wayne Moody, Northwestern Michigan College's automotive department director.
And then he gestured toward the van, a 2000 Ford Windstar.
"Are you serious?" Prevo, 18, said, as she realized the van was for her. "Oh my God! Crazy!"
Prevo climbed into the van, shaking with excitement. Some of her friends choked up, unable to check their emotions.
A Traverse City physician donated the van to NMC's auto department last fall, and Moody suggested to students and members of the NMC Motor Sports Club that they give it to a needy student.
Students were so motivated by that idea that they even came in during Christmas break to work on it, Moody said.
Moody asked the students to keep their ear to the ground for just the right student.
Levi Gates, who founded the motor club, said the answer unexpectedly arrived last week as he worked at Turtle Creek Casino. The bar supervisor said her daughter was looking for a beater car to get her back and forth from Bellaire to NMC and wondered if he knew of a good car.
She explained that Prevo was in a serious bind. The engine of her 2003 Kia Rio had exploded several days before NMC classes started on Monday. Even worse, Prevo had just drained her back account for new tires, oil change, windshield wipers, and a full tank of gas for the car, which she bought for $900 from her grandparents in March.
Gates went back to Moody, who learned Prevo was attending NMC as a full-time, pre-med student with federal tuition aid. He thought she was a great choice, and called Prevo's mom, Laura Lippel with the good news.
"I was so shocked, I started to cry," Lippell said. "I don't think the gentleman realized what he was doing for our family."
Quite a lot, as it turns out. Prevo — the "little mom" as her mother calls her — helps out with her two brothers, ages 17 and 14, and her step-brother, who is 5. Both Lippell and her stepfather leave work in the late afternoon to work at the casino and don't return home until the wee morning hours. So she gets up and takes the two older boys to Bellaire High School and then drives to college.
The teens walk home from school — a 1 ½ mile hike — and Prevo returns home in time to make dinner and drive them to school events, Lippell said.
Prevo's ambition to become a doctor was inspired early on. As a 7-year-old, doctors had to surgically remove a tumor that rested against her brain, Lippell said.
Prevo also helped with her younger stepbrother, who has undergone multiple ear surgeries. And her middle brother suffers from brittle bone disease, a genetic disorder characterized by fragile bones.
"He's broken almost every bone in his body and she helped him while he was in traction," Lippell said. "She wants to become a pediatrician so she can help kids. She wants to be in that first line of defense like her pediatrician was for her."
A government program pays Prevo's tuition since her insurance was covered for several years by Medicaid when she was younger. But money is still very tight, Lippell said.
After her car fell apart, Prevo had to ferry her parents to and from work, so she could have the car to drive to school.
Prevo was delighted with the new van, which came with a box of chocolates, a donated flashlight, a tool kit, and new tires, compliments of Randy's Old Towne Service in Traverse City.
"Awesome," Prevo said, as she took it all in. "It will help me out a lot."
Her mom hugged her and turned to the guys.
"I don't know how to thank you guys in the right way," she said. "You guys are on the top of the top."