The Salvation Army of Gilroy needed a Christmas miracle for its annual holiday giving season after the rough year it had.
In September, one of its leaders, Capt. Manuel Gaytan, died due to complications from Covid-19, according to friend and Salvation Army volunteer Fred Tovar.
“Captain Gaytan had a dream of building a better tomorrow for his community and those he served, and show people that their past or present circumstances don’t define their future; as God can always shine brighter than the darkest night,” his wife Daisy wrote in a Salvation Army Facebook post. “He was a light God sent to shine the way and will be missed by all who knew him.”
September is typically the time the Salvation Army begins planning for the holidays, but with Gaytan’s passing, the organization got a much later start than usual.
Salvation Army Lt. Nayeli Mercado, who recently took the helm of the organization, said they didn’t know if the Dec. 22 giveaway event was going to happen.
But with the support of many volunteers, businesses and other community members, the Salvation Army was able to serve 350 children among more than 100 families, well above its initial plan of 50 children.
Despite a light drizzle of rain, the families poured into the Salvation Army’s Fifth Street location Dec. 22, where they received toys and a box filled with food, including tamales.
Because, as Mercado noted, you can’t have Christmas without tamales.
“The community responded so great,” she said. “I see everyone happy, and the families are grateful. It’s a blessing.”
Mercado said many of the families the Salvation Army serves are farmworkers, who are struggling in the winter months due to lack of work.
After receiving the boxes and toys, the families posed for pictures with Santa Claus, aka Tovar, who had arrived in style via a Gilroy Police cruiser.
“For people to show up and help, this is what our community is all about,” said Tovar, a Gilroy City Councilmember who helped organize the event. “It’s much bigger than we thought.”
For Tovar, it’s a tradition to dress up as Santa at various events, and he recently put on the beard and red suit at a meet and greet event for families in the Head Start program. He said he enjoys seeing the excitement on the children’s faces when he meets them.
“I think I get more out of it than they do,” Tovar said.