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SVCF 2019 2019 Annual Report
Our Work

Gilroy Foundation & SVCF Bring Community Together After Tragedy

For Edward Lujan, the Gilroy Garlic Festival was a rite of summer, a community event that he had been a part of since he was 14. For the past 25 years, he volunteered at the festival, helping with maintenance or garbage collection and fundraising for the Gilroy High School baseball and basketball teams. In his high school years, the festival offered a chance to hang out with friends; in the years since, it had become the place where everyone reunited and caught up with one another. 

“Everybody comes back,” he says. “It’s a community effort and a big time for Gilroy to shine.”

That all changed on July 28, 2019, when a gunman opened fire on the festival, killing three people and wounding 12 others. 

Lujan had spent the day volunteering at the festival’s cook-off stage and was returning some items to a vendor’s booth about 20 minutes before the festival’s 6 p.m. closing time. Suddenly he heard explosions. He thought it was fireworks, but when the sounds resumed after a brief pause, he realized it was gunfire. A former EMT and a volunteer firefighter, Lujan instinctively ran toward the shots to help. There, he found a young man, Trevor Irby, who had been shot and was badly injured. Lujan and a friend took turns doing CPR and tried to save Irby, but he died of his wounds. Lujan spent the next four hours with Irby’s fiancée, holding her hand and trying to comfort her.

Lujan’s actions were humane and heroic, and in the hours and weeks to come, he was far from alone. “Everybody came together,” he says. “We knew there would be people in need, and we needed to help as a community. This was our town, our event.”

Donna Pray, the longtime executive director of the Gilroy Foundation, had been at the festival that day, along with 15 members of the foundation’s board, staff and volunteer corps, to raise money for the foundation. Prior to that day, the foundation’s fundraising efforts typically centered around providing educational scholarships and grants to local nonprofits. Pray and her colleagues were back at the foundation offices when their cellphones started pinging with texts and calls informing them of the shootings.

Just a few hours later, Pray was on the phone with Michelle Fries, the director of nonprofit support services for Silicon Valley Community Foundation, which provides fund management and technical assistance to Gilroy Foundation and other colleague community foundations. SVCF CEO Nicole Taylor had asked Fries, who has been working with Pray for several years, to be a liaison to Gilroy. SVCF pledged to support its Gilroy counterpart, starting immediately with an emergency fund for the victims and seeding it with a $10,000 donation from SVCF.

From there, things moved quickly. The next morning, Pray consulted with her board president, Edwin Diaz, and sent out a memo on the creation of the Gilroy Garlic Festival Victims Relief Fund, which would be administered by SVCF. SVCF and Gilroy Foundation would waive all administrative fees. Pray then emailed donors and supporters. By 10 a.m., she had received the first pledge, a match of SVCF’s initial contribution — $10,000 from Christopher Ranch, a local grower of garlic and producer of garlic products. By that afternoon, SVCF had established the charitable fund and opened it for public donations via PayPal. “The money came pouring in,” Pray says.

Two days later, at the Gilroy Foundation’s board meeting, an oversight committee was established, which included foundation board members and volunteers, as well as Fries. SVCF was responsible for the oversight committee, which would manage the donations and distribute the funds to the people who had been injured, as well as the families of the three people killed.

“The response was overwhelming, and it was based out of a need to do something for the shooting victims, to relieve some of the financial burden they were experiencing,” Diaz says. “There was a deep hurt about the fact that it happened at a community event that we’re all proud of.”

At first, the process proved to be complicated. The committee initially created a set of criteria to disburse money based on financial need. It wanted to help victims pay for medical or mental health treatment. But it soon learned that funds for such services were available from state and federal agencies, including the FBI. It became clear to members of the oversight committee that they should expedite funds to the people who had been injured by gunfire — without requiring them to go through a lengthy application process or prove their need. Donors also wanted the money to go out as quickly as possible.

But as a nonprofit, Silicon Valley Community Foundation is obligated to follow Internal Revenue Service rules that require emergency relief funds to go only to people with documented needs. In general, SVCF is prohibited from distributing grant funds directly to individuals. So how could SVCF make grants to individual victims?

Within a few weeks, the committee was able to resolve the key issues — thanks in part to some timely advice from Kenneth Feinberg, the attorney who administered the federal government’s September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. Feinberg and others have helped other organizations navigate the same issues — how and when to assess victims’ need, and how to provide aid to individuals while following IRS guidelines for nonprofits.

Feinberg’s advice: The oversight committee needed to ensure that all the money would go to the victims; no money should be kept for administrative fees. By the third week in August, the committee had begun distributing money directly to the victims.

Each member of the oversight committee was assigned to be a liaison to five or six of the 22 victims, connecting with them personally to offer support and assistance. For Karen La Corte, a member of the committee and the Gilroy Foundation’s board, her interaction with these families was both satisfying and deeply emotional.

“They needed to talk to somebody, and they needed to tell their stories, over and over again,” says La Corte.

The youngest victim killed in the shooting was 6-year-old Stephen Romero. His mother and grandmother were also hit by gunfire but recovered. In the days after the shooting, “we were in a state of shock to where we didn’t know what we needed,” says Berta Aguirre, Stephen’s aunt. “Our main focus was dealing with a funeral and injuries and hospitals.”

For a while, the family was too devastated to talk to anyone. But oversight committee member Joel Goldsmith was able to connect with the family.

“We talked with Joel a lot,” Aguirre says. “He told us, ‘If you come up with something that you need, we have resources and we can help. Just let us know.’ The community has come together and kind of feels like a family.”

For more information about the community response to the 2019 tragedy at the Gilroy Garlic Festival, visit our page reflecting on community response.

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