$325k from G-Fest to Gilroy

Gilroy Garlic Festival volunteer Clyde Kreeger smiles after getting his face painted at the Smiley Orca Facepainting booth in the children's area Saturday.

Being the Garlic Festival President has its perks.
Christening a brand-new 250-foot zip line, lighting the event’s ceremonial torch, kicking off new traditions like the San Francisco Giants Garlic Fest, or having some clout when it comes to dreaming up the official shirts worn by the festival’s Board of Directors are part of the “presidential prerogative,” as 2012 President Hugh Davis once put it.
But as far as highlights go, generating a record $325,000 for 175 participating nonprofit organizations of the 34th annual garlicky extravaganza takes gratification to a whole new level. Last year, volunteers earned $290,000.
The most recent award ups the total volunteer payout and charitable distribution since 1979 to a whopping $9,737,763.
That total is 2,140 times more than what the first festival generated in 1979, when five nonprofit organizations earned $4,550.
“You don’t realize what that means to me to me,” said Davis. “This is the best time of the year for the president.”
It’s also the best time of year for the Garlic Festival – ever – when you’re looking at sheer dollars going back into the community.
The 2012 internationally renowned, three-day summer food bonanza churned out an all-time charity distribution high this year, despite the fact that attendance was down by 8 percent from that of 2011.
From the American Cancer Society, to local high school sports teams, to a motorcycle ministry group, to the National Kidney Foundation, to the South County Derby Girls, to Second Harvest Food Bank: Every group who did their part gets a piece of the $325,000 funding pie.
In addition to the regular volunteer payout, the festival’s board of directors also allocated $50,000 to the Rudy Melone Memorial Scholarship Fund, $9,000 to the Gilroy Unified School District for new lunch tables and $8,500 to the Kids Discover Arts Program.
Members of the Garlic Festival’s Strategic Budget Committee voted on the additional $67,500, which comes from a separate funding pool consisting of major sponsorships and community contributions.
Finding out that Kids Discover Arts is on solid financial ground for another season was “a great phone call to get” for Recreation Supervisor Cathy Mirelez with the City of Gilroy Recreation Department.
The volunteer-driven, beloved community event benefited roughly 450 children in 2011 and is entering its 24th year. The program was designed to offer children ages 5-11 from all economic backgrounds a creative outlet in lieu of having arts in the classroom.
“I was so shocked and surprised and thrilled because $8,500 has been the operating amount for our expenses for that event each year,” said Mirelez of the program, which is not covered by the city’s general funds budget. “It was the most wonderful surprise ever… my mouth dropped… I almost cried…how often do you have something like that drop in your lap from nowhere?”
Raising enough money to keep Kids Discover Arts alive and thriving in a downturn economy has been especially challenging, she said.
Young children aren’t the only ones who stand to benefit from garlicky benevolence.
Since the Strategic Budget Committee voted to pour another $50,000 into the Garlic Festival’s Rudy Melone Memorial Scholarship Fund – an endowment managed by the local philanthropic Gilroy Foundation – the balance is now well over $200,000.
With approximately $8,500 in scholarship funds awarded to eight Gilroy and Christopher high school students in 2011, “they’ve added even more money to their fund, so this year, they’ll be getting even more money to give out in scholarships next year,” explained Gilroy Foundation Executive Director Donna Pray.
Established in honor of festival co-founder Dr. Rudy Melone who is a former president of Gavilan College, the memorial scholarship benefits local high school graduates as well as current graduates transferring from Gavilan College to a four-year university.
“It’s nice,” noted Gavilan College President Steve Kinsella. “It will certainly be put to good use for the recipient(s) of those funds. It’s getting harder and harder to pay for college.”
Having the privilege of “handing out those scholarships to those kids brings tears to my eyes,” said Davis.
Giving GUSD $9,000 to purchase new lunch tables – something the festival has done in 2003 and 2007 – is also a “win-win” benefitting the festival and school district.
“It works really well, because (GUSD) needs more tables, so we buy those for them, and then borrow the tables for three days during the festival and put them in the tents,” explained Assistant Executive Director Joann Kessler with the festival.
The festival is hitting its projected charity distribution targets “dead-on” since forming the Strategic Budget Committee several years ago.
Increasing the amount doled to nonprofit organizations “is a trend we hope to continue,” said the festival’s Executive Director Brian Bowe, who gives seminars on the “tips and trades and secrets of how (we) go about doing all of this” at the annual CalFest Convention in San Diego.  
Being “ahead of the curve” on maximizing volunteer payout has turned the Garlic Festival into something of a rock star in the event world.
“We get asked regularly,” said Bowe, who recently counseled a group of folks looking to start an olive festival in Hollister. “It’s a very popular system that we’re happy to share with anybody, because it works so well.”
How high the Garlic Festival’s charity distribution climbs in the coming years ultimately hinges on the health of the festival, not to mention parking and transportation considerations as the surrounding community continues to grow and change, Bowe said.
“As we adapt to that, it’s hard to know what our revenue and expenses will be like,” he explained. “We’re certainly planning as far ahead as we can.”
As for Davis, who will pass the torch Nov. 1 to 2013 President Dennis Harrigan, serving at the festival’s helm during a record-setting year and going out on such a high note is “almost overwhelming.”
“It was a great year, but it’s a bummer it’s over,” he said. “There’s this feel-good feeling that you just want to keep going on.”