Volunteers: the backbone of the Garlic Festival

GILROY
– It’s dusty, it’s hot, it’s the gateway to the world-famous
Gilroy Garlic Festival.
GILROY – It’s dusty, it’s hot, it’s the gateway to the world-famous Gilroy Garlic Festival.

It’s the 130-acre area where 700 volunteers direct more than 60,000 cars to parking spots every year.

Steve Ashford, the parking chair for this year’s festival, and numerous volunteers have already spent days preparing the open fields along Miller Avenue, Thomas Road and Bally Bunion Road for the onslaught of garlic-worshippers who will drive to Gilroy at the end of the month to honor the stinking rose.

Fifteen-year-old Lauren Bevilacqua has been volunteering at the Garlic Festival since she was 7. She said she has plansto become the first female parking chair by the time she’s 22.

“I figure if I work (a few more years) where I am, I’ll be ‘Parking 1’ by the time I’m 21 or 22,” she said.

“Parking 1” is the radio call name for the festival’s parking chair.

Bevilacqua’s sister, Katheryne, 17, has also spent many a dusty day in the parking lot. She said the hospitality ticket makes the tens of hours she’s logged at the Garlic Festival worth it.

Katheryne said she likes to see people from all over the country come to enjoy the Garlic Festival.

“It’s amazing how (the festival) can draw hundreds of thousands of people to Gilroy,” Katheryne said. “It’s a unique experience because there’s so much garlic food.”

Lauren met a family from Indiana at last year’s festival who said they drive their RV to the festival every year.

The Bevilacquas, who are both Gilroy natives, have been working alongside Ashford’s sons, Ty, 18, and Kelsy, 16, for almost a decade.

The Ashford family has volunteered thousands of hours at the Garlic Festival over the last 15 years.

Steve’s wife, Linda, has served as a volunteer coordinator and worked in the parking lots and beer gardens.

The Ashford’s son Ty was the mind behind this year’s computerized time cards for parking lot volunteers. Volunteer hours will be logged on computerized cards this year to simplify money distribution to the various organizations for which people donate their time.

“Working for the Garlic Festival is a good way to support the community,” Ty said.

If there’s a common thread running through the stories of all Garlic Festival volunteers, it’s the sense of camaraderie that develops as people work together to host an event on behalf of their hometown.

Steve Janisch has volunteered at 22 Garlic Festivals and said the people he has cooked with in Gourmet Alley have become friends who look forward to working together every year.

“Lots of people who (volunteer in Gourmet Alley) have been cooking (at the festival) for years,” Janisch said.

“Working at the festival brings a real sense of community and pride in Gilroy,” Janisch said. “All (my) volunteer hours have (raised money for) good causes.”

His volunteer hours have benefited half a dozen charities and organizations. This year, Janisch’s hours cooking scampi and calamari in Gourmet Alley will raise money for the Santa Clara County Autism Program in which his 10-year-old son Logan is enrolled. Janisch’s daughter, Ashley, 14, will also volunteer at the festival.

Janisch remembers the Garlic Festivals of old when the shrimp was thawed by hand and volunteers at the Gilroy Senior Center de-veined and peeled it.

“The festival has changed a lot over the years,” Janisch said. “We used to process the garlic in a Cuisinart.”

Now, the garlic is processed beforehand and arrives at Gourmet Alley in 5-gallon buckets.

Janet and Bill Wenholz moved to Gilroy from North Monterey County 15 years ago and have been working at the Garlic Festival for 11 years. Bill served food at the end of the Tour de Garlic bike race and worked in the poster booth before joining the parking team with his wife.

Bill Wenholz said he has met people from Canada and all over the East Coast during his years in the parking lots. Janet met someone from India last year who had made a special trip from Ohio, where she was visiting her daughter, to come to the festival.

Janet said she “got hooked on parking” after having worked at various booths inside the festival gates. She has been in the parking lots “full-time, all three days, for nine years.”

“It’s a great opportunity to give back to the community,” Bill Wenholz said. “You meet people you wouldn’t otherwise meet … and it seems like the right thing to do.”

Last year, volunteers contributed 41,424 hours of service to the Garlic Festival and raised $236,405 for 159 organizations.

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