Gilroy UMC youth group members posed with Santa after helping him distribute gifts to the children of low-income migrant families, before hitting the streets for their "drive-by giving" adventure.
By Kat Teraji
Miracles happen all the time. I had the privilege of witnessing a couple of them myself this holiday season when I helped take a group of teenagers on a drive-by giving adventure on the streets of Gilroy. Alene Creager came up with the idea a few years ago when she was sick of hearing so many news stories about drive-by shootings. She took her children and began giving out Christmas gifts to those on the streets who were in need.
This year she organized the event so that Christmas gift bags containing warm gloves, rain ponchos, beef jerky, tangerines, thermal socks, hotel toiletries, washcloths, band-aids, lip balm, and other helpful items for those living on the streets were handed out to homeless people. The Gilroy United Methodist Church Youth Group, Pastor Eric Cho, and Steve Teraji filled the bags, topping each one with a hand-knitted neck scarf.
The youth group went out to distribute the gifts on Christmas Eve. At one point, the five youth riding in my van spotted a homeless man wheeling a shopping cart down the street, but it was not a location where we could park the car. Teen Victoria Sanchez began anxiously saying, "Open the door, open the door!" but it wasn't opening easily. Finally, the van door slid open; one of the kids stuck her arm out, and the man took the bag with a grin and a thank you. We slammed the door and took off.
"It was a real drive-by; we did a real drive-by!" the kids giggled with glee. Pastor Eric's son Justin had a creative suggestion that we could use compressed air to shoot the gift bags out of our vehicles in true drive-by fashion, which greatly amused the other kids.
Under a bridge in the middle of town, we gingerly stepped down an embankment and called out. A homeless man answered back.
"I'm the only one here today," he answered when we asked if there were others down there with him. "It's a sunny day, so they are out at the park," he explained. "But I'm not feeling well; I think I'm coming down with something, so I stayed home."
It was startling to realize that "home" to him is staying under a bridge.
We stopped at a park where the kids went up to give gift bags to a small group of homeless people, including a petite homeless woman with weather-beaten skin. She gave one of the youths a hug, and then this amazing thing happened. As we were walking away, one of the homeless group, a man named Peter, called out, "Wait, I want to pray with you."
Suddenly we found ourselves in a big circle – the kids, Pastor Eric, Alene, and the homeless all holding hands while Peter prayed. We were surprised to hear him pray for us – for our safety and protection. And – he prayed in thanksgiving for the scarves.
"I can't believe someone took the time to make something for us," he prayed with great emotion. "Someone took the time and the care to make these beautiful scarves by hand!"
It was the item that seemed to touch everyone the most. He and the other homeless were hugging the kids and thanking them. It was an unforgettable experience.
What they didn't know is that the woman who donated those scarves is a St. Mary's Catholic parishioner who is fighting Stage-3 breast cancer. Her mother died at Christmas last year and left a lot of yarn behind, which most people probably would have thrown away. But she has been knitting scarves all year, and when she heard about the project to the homeless, she donated them all to us.
"Your words tell me my mom's spirit was there," she said when I told her how the scarves had warmed the hearts of so many. "My small contribution to the homeless provides me a form of prayer, of thankfulness and a sense of satisfaction that I may have done something to help someone else.
"It's wonderful when the youth of the community learn about people they didn't even know existed in their midst!
"When they travel through Gilroy, these teens will never see their town in quite the same way again," Alene said.
It was a reminder that we're all one family. We're one village. And I think if there's one thing that we learned from this holiday season, it's the satisfaction of reaching out and helping somebody. If you just reach out and give somebody a helping hand, you can change a life, and if you change a life, your own will be changed.
"Dear God, thank you," Felix Kirchner, one of the young men on the drive-by began spontaneously praying, as he was climbing back into the van after we gave away the last gift. "Thank you for giving me the courage to make a difference."
I couldn't have said it any better.