Gilroy Foundation brings community together in wake of Garlic Festival tragedy

Gilroy Strong

To remember the victims, honor our first responders, and mark the anniversary of the devastating shootings at the Gilroy Garlic Festival on Sunday, July 28, 2019, we share this story of how the community came together to respond to the tragedy.

For Edward Lujan, the annual Gilroy Garlic Festival is a regular rite of summer, a community event that has been part of his life at least since he was 14. That’s when he started working as a festival volunteer, helping raise money for his Gilroy High School baseball and basketball teams, by helping out with maintenance or garbage collection.

He has worked at almost every Garlic Festival since, at least 25 of them and counting. In his high school years, the festival offered a chance to hang out with friends; in the years since, it has become the place where everyone reunites and catches up. “Everybody comes back,” he says. “It’s a community effort and a big time for Gilroy to shine.”

Last July 28, Lujan had spent a full 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 four loud explosions. At first, he thought it was fireworks but when the sounds resumed after a brief pause, he realized it was gunfire.

Lujan works as a real estate agent with Windermere Realty but had spent a dozen years working as an EMT and also a volunteer firefighter. He instinctively ran toward the shots, rather than away from them, as most people were doing. He encountered another festival volunteer and firefighter he knew tending to a young man, Trevor Irby, who was badly injured and going in and out of consciousness. Lujan and his friend took turns doing CPR and trying to stanch the bleeding.

Gilroy Sign“I tried to keep pressure on his wound,” he recalls. Around him, people were screaming that there were multiple casualties. They loaded Irby onto the back of a truck to try to get him to an area where ambulances were stationed. But they couldn’t get through, and Irby died about six minutes after being shot.

Two other people -- both of them children – also died: 6-year-old Stephen Romero and 13-year-old Keyla Salazar. Nineteen more were injured by the 19-year-old who fired 36 rounds at festival attendees before Gilroy police shot and wounded him, he then turned the gun on himself.

Lujan spent the next four hours with Irby’s fiancée, holding her hand and trying to comfort her. She was soaked in Irby’s blood and in shock. At her request, he initially silenced Irby’s phone, which was buzzing and ringing non-stop, and then fielded calls from friends and family, informing them of Irby’s death. One of the calls was from the friend Irby had been speaking with at the moment he was shot.

Lujan’s actions were humane and heroic, but, 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 herself, along with 15 members of the foundation’s board, staff and volunteer corps, selling sangria and wine coolers to raise money for the respected community foundation. Prior to that day, Gilroy Foundation’s fundraising efforts typically centered around providing educational scholarships and grants to local nonprofits. By 5:40 pm, when the shooter began his assault, Pray and her colleagues from the Foundation had left the festival site and were back at the Foundation offices counting their proceeds. They learned about the shooting when their cell phones began pinging from texts and calls.

Two hours later, Pray was on the phone with Michelle Fries, the director of nonprofit support services for Silicon Valley Community Foundation. SVCF provides fund management and technical assistance to Gilroy Foundation and other colleague community foundations. SVCF CEO Nicole Taylor had asked Fries, who had been working with Pray for several years, to be a liaison with Gilroy. First things first, Fries wanted to make sure everyone on Pray’s team was okay. And she also wanted to let her know that SVCF would help its Gilroy counterpart in any way it could. The most immediate way was to start an emergency fund for the victims and seed 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. Both SVCF and Gilroy Foundation immediately decided to waive all administrative fees. She also sent out an email to 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 the afternoon, SVCF had established the charitable fund and opened it for public donations. A PayPal donation mechanism was up on the Gilroy Foundation’s website, as well as SVCF’s. Then, Pray says, “the money came pouring in.”

As it happened, Gilroy Foundation had a board meeting scheduled for Tuesday evening, two days after the shooting. Diaz canceled the regular agenda to focus on the tragedy and how the foundation should respond. An oversight committee was established, and included Gilroy Foundation board members and volunteers, as well as Fries. SVCF was responsible for the oversight committee, which would manage the donations coming in and get them to the people who’d been injured, as well as to the families of the three people who had been 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.”

But the process proved to be more complicated than committee members had anticipated. The committee initially created a set of criteria to award money based on financial need. They wanted to help victims pay for medical or psychological treatment. But they soon learned that funds were available for those kinds of services from state and federal sources, including the FBI. It became clear to members of the oversight committee that they should simply provide compensation to the people who’d been shot -- without requiring them to go through a lengthy application process or prove their need. Donors had given money to help people who’d been injured by the shooter, and they wanted to get the money out as expeditiously as possible.

But as a nonprofit, Silicon Valley Community Foundation – which was distributing the grant funds to victims – is obligated to follow Internal Revenue Service rules that require emergency relief funds go only to people with documented needs. In general, the foundation is prohibited from distributing grant funds directly to individuals. The question was, how could the community foundation make grants to individual victims without getting in trouble with the IRS?

“It was a tense time,” recalls Michelle Fries.

Gilroy Strong MemorialThe pressure was especially great because many people in the community and beyond were giving generously and organizing fundraising events. Within three weeks of the shooting, the emergency fund had raised almost $1 million, on its way to a total of $1.9 million. The events and donations were covered widely by local media.

But even as the money poured in, it took time to set up processes so the committee could start writing checks. Committee members found themselves getting asked questions, in person and on social media channels about whether the donations were getting out to victims quickly enough.

But within a few weeks, the committee was able to resolve the key issues and defuse the tension – thanks, in part, to some timely outside advice. As it turned out, other communities distributing relief funds to victims of violence and disaster had navigated the same issues – in particular, the question of how and whether to assess victims’ need, and how to avoid jeopardizing the nonprofit status of organizations trying to help individuals. Among the many phone calls offering support was one to Michelle Fries from Anita Busch, whose cousin had been killed in a 2012 mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado and whose own child was traumatized as an attendee at the Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting in Las Vegas.

“This woman has made it her life’s work to help communities that go through mass shootings and to inform them about the importance of getting money to the victims,” says Fries. She spent 45 minutes on the phone with Busch, who gave her one especially important piece of advice: “You’re going to want to talk to Kenneth Feinberg,” she told Fries, referring to the attorney who administered the huge fund set up to compensate victims of the 9/11 attack in New York, along with numerous other victims’ assistance funds.

Fries and Erica Wood, head of SVCF’s community impact division, called him up, and Feinberg graciously spoke with them. His advice was pivotal, and it boiled down to this: The oversight committee needed to make sure that all the money went to the victims; no money should be kept for administrative fees.

“You have to give every cent that’s coming in to victims,” he told Fries. As long as that was done, he said, “the IRS is not going to pull your tax-exempt status.” His advice assuaged concerns about running afoul of tax laws, and by the third week in August, the committee had begun distributing money directly to the victims based on the severity of gunshot wounds and the amount of time they’d spent in hospital care.

The oversight committee decided that each of its members should be assigned as a liaison to five or six of the 22 shooting 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, who visited some people while they were still being treated in the hospital.

One of the families most affected by the shooting was the extended clan that included 6-year-old victim Stephen Romero. His mother and grandmother, both named Barbara Aguirre, were also shot and injured. In the days after the shooting, “we were in a state of shock to where we didn’t know what we needed,” said Berta Aguirre, Stephen’s aunt and daughter of the elder Barbara Aguirre, who spent a week in the hospital. “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 Joel Goldsmith, a member of the oversight committee, was successful in contacting and connecting with the family.

Gilroy Strong Poster“We talked with Joel a lot,” Berta said. “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. They're going through the journey with us as opposed to, ‘you're on your own.’”

At the oversight committee’s recommendation, Goldsmith also informed the family when Caliber Collision, a chain of auto body repair shops, was preparing to donate a refurbished car to survivors of the garlic festival shooting. The family applied and in December the elder Barbara Aguirre, still using a crutch and recovering from her injuries, was given the keys at a ceremony at Caliber’s Morgan Hill shop.

Edward Lujan responded to the tragedy as a compassionate human being – and in the way he was trained as an EMT and firefighter. In the weeks after the shooting, he stayed in contact with Trevor Irby’s fiancée, as well as Irby’s parents and his friend Steven. It was his way of supporting people that he had gotten to know as they grappled with loss and tragedy.

But Lujan himself was not immune to the effects of this trauma. For about a month after the shooting, he found himself jumping at loud sounds, and had flashbacks and unsettling dreams. Those behaviors have now eased, he says, but they linger in the background. “It brings up some emotions when people ask about that day or what I saw and experienced,” he says.

His connection with Irby’s family and fiancée will likely continue.

“Her father called me and wanted to talk – to thank me for helping his daughter, for being there and supporting her,” Lujan says. “His parents want to come out next year to the Festival to express appreciation to the community for the support.”

A year after the shooting, we remember the victims and honor our first responders by presenting this video about how the community came together.

Watch Video