“A Necessary Response: Stepping to the Plate”

 The story of Gilroy Foundation’s response to the Gilroy Garlic Festival Shooting

Sunday, July 28, 2019. 

As always, Gilroy Foundation’s Wine Booth, as well as all alcohol vendors, closed service one hour prior to the Gilroy Garlic Festival closing at 6 P.M. By the time we gathered up our belongings, it was 5:25 P.M., and we left the Festival grounds to come back to our offices to count money and put it in the bank night drop.  Three of us had just started counting money when our phones all pinged – texts saying, “active shooters at Festival.”

Our Gilroy community would not be the same.

Within hours, I, Donna Pray, Executive Director, received a call on my cell from Michelle Fries, Director of Nonprofit Support Services, at Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF), our investment partner. Her first words were, “Are you OK?  Are all your volunteers OK?”  Then, she told me that SVCF CEO/President Nicole Taylor wanted to establish a “fund” to help the victims.  By 11 a.m. the next morning, the Gilroy Garlic Festival Victims Relief Fund was established with an initial $10,000 donation from SVCF, and PayPal buttons were on both of our websites.  Gilroy Foundation President Edwin Diaz came to the office and sat down with staff to make a plan.  Then, I sent an email about our plan to Gilroy Foundation’s Board of Directors, Emeritus Board, Ambassadors, fund donors, and local service agencies.  The first response was from Christopher Ranch, who immediately wanted to match the initial donation with $10,000.  Then, donations came pouring in.  By the end of the day on Monday, July 29, we had over $250,000 in donations and pledges.

It seemed like 24 hours a day, we were getting PayPal notifications of donations, and the phone was ringing.  Concerned local businesses, of course, and many of the Foundation’s “families” called.  Businesses from all over California and beyond called. Other Foundations called to offer help and money for victims.  But, what was most touching were the local families, some with children, that arrived throughout the day, every day, bringing in money they had collected at lemonade stands, pop-up petting zoos, dance classes, pool parties, backyard barbeques…they wanted to let the victims know that they cared and wanted to help.  Strangers arrived to meet with staff.  They talked, they cried, and they left as new community friends.  It was a form of healing for so many.  If something bad happens in our backyard, the people of Gilroy stand together to try to help and heal.


Our lives here at Gilroy Foundation offices changed drastically.  At the time of year when we are sending scholarship award checks off to colleges and planning our “Day in the Country” fundraiser in the fall, we were thrown into high gear dealing with the donors, the media, and, of course, the victims.  Our Board of Directors, along with SVCF, formed a seven-member Oversight Committee.  They would, along with the legal and compliance teams at SVCF, develop a protocol on how to handle the collection and distribution of funds to the victims.

At the Community Vigil four evenings later, a group of Rucker Elementary School children sought the Foundation out to give us a check for $3,512.50 they had collected at lemonade stands.  Board VP and Oversight Committee Chair, Joel Goldsmith, spoke to the community of how the Foundation would be the go-to spot for people who want to make donations for the victims.

The Foundation’s Vision Statement was truly challenged right then: “By engaging all aspects of the community, Gilroy Foundation is the recognized leader in connecting resources to community needs.”

The Oversight Committee had staff upload applications on the website for victims by August 12.  Vendors/volunteers/attendees that had to run for their lives were affected too, so they were able to apply for “hardship grants.”  Many had to miss work because of PTSD and fear of leaving their homes.  Many went to counseling for weeks or more.  In truth, every person that attended the Festival that day was a victim in some way.

As the days and first few weeks went by, the Oversight Committee was meeting in our conference room at least two days a week.  Because of confidential/privacy issues, we needed to engage a local construction company to build a door to enclose our open conference room.  Of course, the Gilroy construction company built it overnight, and it was pro-bono.  Again, that’s Gilroy.

By August 14, we had collected over $750k, plus a pledge from an anonymous donor of $250k more.  So, we were at $1 million in 17 days.

Even though Gilroy Foundation, with the help of Silicon Valley Community Foundation, acted quickly to respond to the crisis, we had to pivot to make fast changes.  This required an act-fast, plan-later response that is different from the ways we had done business before.  In some cases, this required understanding that staff and the Committee will make mistakes, even fail, in the spirit of responsiveness.  The work of the Oversight Committee was taking its toll in many ways.  (Finding the proper protocol of dealing with victims, with the distribution of donations to the victims, to attendance at so many community vigils and fundraisers were the greatest challenges.) The Committee meetings had to be documented, and with privacy issues, meeting notes were under lock and key and were also uploaded to the cloud for further safekeeping.

Staff was also attending fundraisers and was busy with donors coming in, taking photos with them, and posting to social media.  We truly believe that our daily social media posts helped keep the cause alive.

Ambassador and Fund Donor volunteers started coming in to help with thank you letters to each mailed-in donation and thank you emails to each PayPal donor.  I had a meeting with our bookkeeper, who has her own business, asking if she had the extra time we may need from her in the weeks ahead.  She simply said, “I’ll make it work – whatever the Foundation needs.”

As the PayPal donations were coming in, one stood out.  In the comment section, they wrote: “This donation is from New Light Congregation, another victim of a mass shooting.  We grieve with you.”  New Light had three of their members killed at the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in October 2018.

The news media was obviously all over Gilroy.  When Gilroy Foundation’s logo appeared on local and national news reports, the local media started knocking on our doors.  They would come in with cameras and microphones and interview me and sometimes members of the Oversight Committee.

We began to learn terms we had never had to think about or use before:  Domestic Terrorism.  Mass Shootings.  California Victims’ Compensation Board.  Crime Scene.  FBI Victims Fund.  But the one thing we learned, so poignant, was we don’t use the term “they lost a child that day.”  No, their child was taken from them that day.

We received a call from a woman whose cousin was killed at the Colorado theater shooting and whose adult child was at the concert shooting in Las Vegas a few years after that.  Her child escaped, but the PTSD remained.  This very kind person asked if we were having any issues with collecting or distributing money to victims.  We said, “yes, we are,” so she gave us Kenneth Feinberg’s cell phone number, as he was the Manhattan attorney behind the 9/11 Victims Fund, and that of Sandy Hook, the Boston Marathon, Pennsylvania Synagogue, the Orlando, Florida, nightclub, and more.  He guided the Oversight Committee through the process and protocol.  It settled many worries on our part.  By October, we were able to make the large distributions to the shooting victims.

In the meantime, we were getting applications from “hardship” cases.  These were from vendors and volunteers that had to leave personal and/or business items behind as they ran for their lives that day.

These vendors ended up leaving so many personal and business items behind.  Even though the Foundation booth volunteers had left the park 10 minutes before the shooting, all of our equipment and product was left.  The FBI did an amazing job securing each booth, each tent, and did an inventory of each item in each space.  When Gilroy Foundation staff was finally allowed back at the park to collect our things 10 days later, they were escorted by two FBI agents.  Those escorts stayed with them until their cars and trucks were loaded and out of the park.  Other than perishable products, the only thing staff heard that was lost was a set of keys belonging to a vendor.  Amazing.

In mid-August, we got a call from Caliber Collision, an auto body company that has 1100 shops nation-wide.  They have a program called Recycled Rides.  They wanted to know if any of our victims could use a free car!  This company takes cars that have been donated by police departments, etc., and refurbishes them inside and out, and donates them to veterans or other people in need.  They gave one car to one of our shooting victims who is permanently disabled, and one to the family of one of the deceased.

Summer turned into Fall, and things continued.  I was in my office seven days a week starting Monday, July 29.  It wasn’t until October 4 that I took a much-needed entire weekend away from the office (not that I wasn’t checking and answering emails!).

Our Development Director, Vicki Campanella, was given the task of dealing with all corporate electronic donations.  Many companies and foundations use an online “application” to be completed in order to receive donations.  Some of these processes took hours to complete, but we weren’t going to let one dollar offered for the victims go uncollected.

When we sent out Membership Letters in late November, we wanted to focus on the future but couldn’t ignore what had been and was still going on.  We referred to it in a subtle way: “At Gilroy Foundation, we have had an overwhelming year of community engagement.”

 In mid-December, Joel Goldsmith, Oversight Committee Chair, and I worked together with the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s office to help organize and establish the Gilroy Strong Resiliency Center in downtown Gilroy.  The Center was to focus on free counseling for the community.  It is being funded by a Federal grant and will be open for at least three years.

 Our Event Coordinator, Deb Sanchez, was doing constant “coordinating.”  Many of the fundraising “events” that groups and businesses were doing asked for representation at the actual event.  We had staff, Board Members, Ambassadors, Emeritus Board Members and even some Fund Donors sign up to attend and represent the Foundation and the Victims Fund. There were fundraising events put on by the Golden State Warriors, San Jose Barracudas, San Jose Sharks, Santa Cruz & San Jose Mustang Car Club,  Carmel Art Gallery, Hoey Ranch, Gilroy Rodeo, Oakland A’s, Miller Red Barn Association, Denny’s Restaurant, Erik’s Deli, The District concerts, San Francisco Giants, San Jose Giants, and more.  One of the most surprising phone calls we received regarding a fundraiser was from Soledad prison, south of Salinas.  We were asked to attend a gathering at the prison on December 20.  Two members of the Oversight Committee attended and were very moved by what a group of prisoners had prepared for them.  They had made a journal for each family of the three deceased victims, with notes of sympathy, encouragement and hopes for healing.  Some of the inmates worked on an art piece memorializing the three as well.  It is now hanging in the Reception area of the Resiliency Center.

Then it was December, and as we were trying to organize some getaway time and a bit of a break for the Oversight Committee and staff during the winter holidays, something happened at our offices on Friday, December 13, that stopped us in our tracks.  As staff was enjoying a holiday lunch, our website apparently disappeared.  Those dreaded words came up on everyone’s screens, “Site Can’t Be Found.”  We soon discovered that one of the servers of our local Internet Provider Service company had crashed, and www.gilroyfoundation.org, along with many other Gilroy and Morgan Hill businesses’ websites, had disappeared.  We also lost our emails because they were hosted by our IPS as well.  We immediately created a Gmail address and emailed that information to as many contacts as we could.

So, just when we thought things were slowing down, panic set in.  We went for over two weeks with no website and no PayPal button.  Who knows what donations we missed.  How could we do business without our website, especially at this time of year when people were making end-of-year donations, and victims’ donations were still coming in?  We finally got our website back on January 3.  Phew.  What a relief.

With the deadline for victim applications of January 31 coming up, the fundraisers began to wind down, and we felt we could get back to business, at least at 80%.  The Oversight Committee was only meeting once a week, then twice a month, and, finally, by April, we closed the Gilroy Garlic Festival Victims Relief Fund to more donations.  The final checks to the shooting victims and families were delivered on May 18, 2020.  In many discussions with the Oversight Committee, Staff, and the Board of Directors, we lamented on not knowing what to do, nor where to go to get information.  The Oversight Committee and I made a plan to create a document that could be helpful to another community that experiences such a tragedy.  We called it “Lessons Learned,” and it is posted on this page for reading and download.

Every dollar collected went to the victims.  Neither SVCF nor Gilroy Foundation took one penny of fees for their work.

  • $1,934,472.51 was collected
  • $1,678,917.47 went to the 22 shooting victims/families
  • $255,555.04 went to 98 hardship victims

Although this was a devastating time for our community, for our staff, and for me, we can reflect on it, knowing that we did our best to help heal and move forward.  Stepping up to the plate to aid the victims of the Garlic Festival shooting will forever be a part of our history.

Personally, during those days, weeks, and months, my demeanor would swing from sadness, thankfulness, sympathy, frustration, empathy, and hopefulness.  But most importantly, I am proud of the strength I conjured up each day for my family, my friends, and my community.

~Donna Pray