Holiday Giving in Gilroy

FEELING BLESSED Gilroyan Veronica Windmueller and her grandson, Gianni Mata,10, are seen at Saint Joseph Family Center. Windmueller, a past recipient of donated toys and food through SJFC’s annual holiday distribution, calls the program ‘a blessing.’ 

On Tuesday, Dec. 20, designated toy runners will race back and forth between buildings with lists of toys they hand off to the toy elves, who will then scurry to a storage room, select the toys on each family’s list, and place them in plastic sacks. Those sacks are then delivered to families waiting to greet the toy runners with smiles and hugs.

This is the scene that plays out every December at St. Joseph’s Family Center, a nonprofit organization located in the heart of Gilroy, during their annual Food and Toy Distribution Day, where needy families throughout South County area receive food baskets and toys for children to celebrate Christmas.

Vicky Martin, director of community engagement at SJFC, anticipates this year’s attendance to be the highest to date.

“Last year we distributed Christmas food baskets to over 700 families, with toys to all children 10 years and younger,” Martin said.

“I believe it was over 1,200 children that received toys. This year we are anticipating approximately 1,000 families to participate in the Christmas food and toy distribution.”

To prepare for the event, St. Joseph’s holds a sign-up at the in November where families in need can register for holiday food baskets and toys.

The families indicate the ages of their children 10 and under, along with their gender, to ensure that every family will receive at least one toy for each child.

“Last year we were able to give each child at least two toys. And that’s our goal. Sometimes it’s the only toys they get,” Martin said.

Five years ago, this holiday giveaway nearly came to a halt. Toys for Tots, the organization St. Joseph’s partnered with and who provided the much-needed toys, informed the organization that they would no longer offer their donations to the Gilroy area.

SJFC executive director David Cox had no intention of disappointing the hundreds of families counting on St. Joseph’s for their holiday celebration, and immediately reached out to the community for help.

His first call went to local resident Vicki Goicovich, whose children at the time attended St. Mary’s School.

Goicovich’s first thought was to recruit help from the students at St. Mary’s in a toy drive, which she felt would inspire them to work as a team and learn the value of giving back to the community.

Goicovich, along with her project partner, Suzanne McCarthy, organized the middle school students weeks in advance of the giveaway to collect toys and cash donations from individuals and businesses throughout the community.

The success of the 2011 toy drive, as in every year since, has been due to the generosity of the Gilroy community.

“I’m very thankful because I can’t always afford Christmas gifts, so to be able to get those gifts, and the dinner basket that comes with it, it’s a blessing,” said Gilroy resident Veronica Windmueller, a participant in past distributions.

Goicovich and McCarthy continue to spearhead the toy drive, and each year they marvel at the community’s response.

“We do have a generous community, we really do, people just come through,” Goicovich said. “I love it, I love seeing the outpouring of support, the community involvement, the kids in our community.”

According to Goicovich, high on the list of supporters is the Gilroy Fire Department, who, upon learning the St. Joseph’s toy drive was in jeopardy, looked to the International Association of Firefighters union for help.

With the union’s support, Gilroy firefighters were given the green light to continue their annual toy drive at all three Gilroy fire stations, with all donations benefitting St. Joseph’s.

Fire engineer Nick Garrett of the Las Animas Fire Station organizes GFD’s yearly toy drive and has worked closely with Goicovich for the past five years to ensure the continuation of Saint Joseph’s toy drive.

“Nick’s done a wonderful job of taking care of our community, and the young people in it,” Las Animas Fire Station Captain Randy Decker said.

“People, I believe, in the community, know that [the fire station] is just the place to drop off the toys, because it’s just overflowing.” Goicovich said. “The fire department is amazing at their collection,” she added.

The same can be said for the Gilroy Police Department, whose past participation has been invaluable, as has the Gilroy Walgreens Pharmacy, which according to Garrett encourages employees to take part in the toy drive by offering discounts on their holiday purchases.

The Gilroy and San Jose Kaiser hospitals are also major contributors, as are many local retailers in Gilroy and Morgan Hill, including Costco, Target, Trader Joe’s, Safeway and Nob Hill, along with many others.

The final step in the annual toy drive takes place in Goicovich’s garage, where they toys are stored. Goicovich and McCarthy, along with countless students, family, and friends, all gather to sort through the thousands of items, separating them according to age, and gender.

Once the sorting is completed, the unwrapped toys are bagged and delivered by the truckload, to St. Joseph’s.

The donated toys are always presented to the families unwrapped. St. Joseph’s staff believe parents receive a sense of pride and dignity in being able to give their children a toy they themselves wrapped.

“The whole premise in providing the holiday food and toy baskets is to add warmth, and tradition, to the home at a difficult time in their lives,” Martin said.

“If it wasn’t for St. Joseph’s I don’t think anybody would make it out here, they’re saving lives, they’re saving lives,” Gilroy resident, Judy Martinez said. “To me, their God’s disciples.”

Donations for the toy drive are accepted at all three Gilroy Fire Stations, as well as St. Joseph’s Family Center, at 7950 Church St, #A, Gilroy. To make a cash donation, go to: