PAYING RESPECT Bernice Aguilera Tonie (right), coordinator at the South County Youth Task Force, and Gina Maldonado from CARAS sort stacks of Gilroy Strong posters and coloring sheets that were being handed out on July 16. Photo: Juan Reyes

It’s been nearly a year since the horrific mass shooting took place at the Gilroy Garlic Festival. Sylvia Mata was part of the group that set up the Family Assistance Center at Rucker Elementary School the day after the shooting took place. 

“Generally this festival and most other festivals we think of as a safe place to go and have a good time with our family,” she said. “Nobody really expects something like this so it’s sort of distorted our sense of safety.”

Mata said she’s hoping to rebuild that sense of safety as one of several victim services agents at the Gilroy Strong Resiliency Center, which is designed to foster wellness and resilience for victims and others impacted by the mass shooting at Christmas Hill Park on July 28, 2019.

Mata said time still goes by, but no one forgets. She believes those who use the services are glad that GSRC exists.  

“We do remember that this happened and we are still here to support them,” she said.

GSRC moved into a larger office inside The Neon Exchange on 7365 Monterey St. They officially opened in January but the Covid-19 pandemic forced in-person services to shut down so they began offering virtual services in March.

Mata said they reopened in-person services last week and the visits are starting to pick up again. She said she noticed that people have been itching to have a face-to-face conversation but only if it’s in the same room. 

“So many things in our lives are virtual: our jobs, school,” she said. “Sometimes when you’re talking about trauma it’s much easier to have an in-person conversation.”

Bernice Aguilera Tonie, South County Youth Task Force manager, and several other volunteers last week walked throughout downtown Gilroy to hand out “Gilroy Strong” signs. She said it’s been a way for the community to pay their respects in a safe, socially distanced fashion.

Mata said the Family Assistance Center and the Wheeler Center met with more than 500 victims on the day after the shooting. She mentioned that anniversaries tend to trigger memories, bringing people back to that horrific moment, and sometimes they need assistance.

Mata said the community has responded very well to the GSRC. They did a need assessment survey to find out what the community needed in order to start the healing process after the shooting.

“A lot of what we heard is that they needed a place or just to feel safe again,” Mata said. “One of the things GSRC is trying to do is create that safe space for people where we understand or we experience dealing with trauma.”

Mata said it can take time for many of the victims to recover and some can be triggered by something such as fireworks and the sound of helicopters.

“Doing things that for us would be normal day-to-day activities can be challenging for them,” she said. “It’s really interrupted their daily lives like going back to school, going back to work.” 

The GSRC is a multi-agency collaboration and serves as a center for individual and group counseling, trauma education, victim advocacy, victim compensation and information on community resources. 

All services are free of cost and provided in both English and Spanish. Childcare will be provided and immigration status will not be requested when entering the GSRC.

GSRC is run out of the victim services unit at the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office. Mata said dealing with victims of trauma and crime is sort of their expertise. She mentioned that one of their goals is to create events where people can have that safe place once again.

“Build community with over survivors, other victims who share that common experience and who share that common trauma,” she said. “Really find comfort and support within each other while also having support services available for them at GSRC.” 

The GSRC plans to host a memorial event a year to the date of the tragic shootings at the Garlic Festival to remember the victims and honor first responders. The event will begin at 5:15pm for a limited number of invited people to participate in an in-person gathering and it will be live-streamed for the community

The GSRC offices, located on the second floor of The Neon Exchange, are open Tuesday and Thursday from 5:30 to 8:30pm. Mata said they hope to have expanded hours in the near future.

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