Incoming freshman Ryan Rust, 18, recently competed in his first NASCAR race, a 28th-place finish in the Camping World Truck Series race in Indianapolis in late July.

Rust has been racing since he was 8 years old and has moved from go-cart racing to NASCAR truck racing.

But for Rust, racing is more than just earning trophies and gaining points, it’s about promoting a program he started to benefit the troops.

Rust and his family established the Adopt-A-Hero program about a year ago, and through racing, Rust has been able to gather additional support.

“It all started out after Easter in 2004,” Rust said. “My grandpa left to be a sniper in the Marines and asked if we wanted to send care packages to him, so we put a bunch of stuff together, and we got 13 boxes full and we sent it over.”

After that, the idea took the back seat until summer 2005, when Rust decided to expand his kind deed for his grandfather into a program that would help several others called Adopt-A-Marine.

Rust began developing connections within the Marines and promoted the program through his racing.

He saw so much success that he was able to expand the program in 2009 to cover not only Marines, but also troops in general and renamed it the Adopt-A-Hero program.

Rick Ware, the owner of Rust’s truck, and Firestop, Rust’s main sponsor, have allowed Rust to display the Adopt-A-Hero logo on Rust’s Number 6 Chevy Silverado.

“It’s definitely been a success,” Rust said. “It’s done a lot so far in a short amount of time, and I hope that it continues to keep growing throughout the years.”

The way the program works is by acting as a liaison for potential adopters and adoptees.

Those interested in getting involved can visit the program’s website, where they will be directed to provide their information.

From there, they can choose the gender, military branch and if even the specific unit, if it is known.

There is also a section on the website for those who are looking to be adopted to fill out their personal information.

“Usually a sergeant or some high-ranking officer in the military will sign them up, or they can sign themselves up,” Rust said.

Those who are adopted are definitely grateful for all the work Rust and his family are doing.

“Thank you very much! Our Marines and Sailors are truly appreciative of any and all support,” one adopted hero wrote to Rust in a letter of thanks.

Rust and his family are solely responsible for providing those wanting to adopt a hero with contact information.

They do not actually send the care packages for the adopters, and because their organization is family-run and non-profit, they will not accept donations.

“We provide the connection, like the address and some basic information, but the sender gets to take care of it from there, so it’s very personal,” Rust said.

According to a release, people have used the Adopt-A-Hero program to send more than 72,000 care packages and more than 1 million cards, letters and e-mails.

People from 24 different countries have signed up to be a part of the program, sending packages to troops in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

But Rust doesn’t plan to stop there, he is looking forward to starting his first semester at UCF next week and hopes to find ways to promote his program within the UCF community.

“I am so very proud of the young man Ryan has grown to be,” said Susan Rust, Ryan’s mother. “I truly admire his accomplishments on and off the race track. He has always been very dedicated to his school work, making it his first priority. Ryan is also very supportive of our military and shows his appreciation for all their hard work and sacrifices through his Adopt-a-Hero program.”

Rust will be majoring in mechanical engineering in the fall, this way, even if he doesn’t earn his NASCAR license, he can still work for them as a mechanic.

For now, Rust looks forward to balancing his first year at UCF with his racing, but he insists that he is a full-time student and part-time racer.

“School always comes first,” Rust said. “As long as I get everything done with school, I can go race.”

Source: Central Florida Future, Incoming UCF freshman races for a cause,  by Adrienne Cutway,  Opinions Editor. Published: Sunday, August 15, 2010,  Updated: Sunday, August 15, 2010