Anne Swehla Garcia laughs when contemplating her obituary headline possibly reading something like “Turkey Lady dies at 98.” She would prefer a different epitaph.
“I’ve done a lot of things. I’ve been a teacher for a long time,” Swehla Garcia said. “I want it to be something else, like ‘she was kind most of the time.’”
Though she acknowledges that bearing the moniker is an honor well-earned for the fundraising work she does during the holiday season.
The 55-year-old Stockton kindergarten teacher has raised more than $35,000 in the last six years to buy food — mostly turkeys — to donate to the Emergency Food Bank Stockton/San Joaquin during Thanksgiving and Christmas.
But Swehla Garcia says others in the community are doing a lot more.
“I do (this work) once or twice a year, but I know people that are on the ground every day, that are doing it every single day,” Swehla Garcia said. “And those people are making a change every single day.”
In 2017, a food bank board member and personal mentor mentioned to Swehla Garcia that they needed more turkeys. So she asked some fellow teachers at her school to donate money to buy some.
That year Swehla Garcia took 14 turkeys down to the food bank. The following year she collected enough funds for 25 cases. And so a new tradition began.
People now reach out to her unprompted at the start of the holiday season to ask if and when she’s taking turkey donations again, Swehla Garcia said. Some of them she knows and others she doesn’t, which inspired the now name for her annual social media fundraising campaign — “Friends and Strangers.” For awhile the fundraising didn’t have a name. It was just something she did.
Contributions come to her from all over the county and state, including Sacramento, Lodi, Modesto and Turlock, as well as the far reaches of the country, such as Maryland, Oregon, North Carolina, Nevada and Tennessee. Though often these donors have some sort of connection to Stockton, Swehla Garcia said.
San Joaquin Regional Transit Department’s annual Stuff the Bus drive has provided a convenient way to donate and transport as the pounds of turkeys has exponentially grown. She also works with the Food 4 Less on Hammer Lane, the only local retailer willing to take on her large orders and store the turkeys until they can be delivered to the food bank.
“I work with them because they made time for me, they work well with me and the food bank,” Swehla Garcia said. “They understand that it helps the community.”
The first year of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 saw the most donations Swehla Garcia has collected, with nearly $9,000 dollars — 505 turkeys weighing a whopping total of 7,000 pounds — donated for Thanksgiving.
“I used to keep notes on a little piece of paper, and then it got crazy and I made spreadsheets,” Swehla Garcia said of her donation tracking.
Initially, Swehla Garcia planned to just raise funds for her Thanksgiving turkeys. But that also quickly changed.
“The day after Thanksgiving (in 2018), I heard this Venmo come through,” she said. A friend wanted to donate for Christmas. “And I’m like, ‘Oh, so I guess I’m off to the races.’”
What she collects for Christmas often depends on what the food bank needs, Swehla Garcia said. Sometimes it’s turkeys and others it’s holiday side dishes. Last year, she was able to purchase nearly 1,500 packages of varying sides.
Jimmy Garza has worked at the Emergency Food Bank for nearly 16 years and runs its warehouse, which includes organizing the holiday food boxes that are given away to those in need during Thanksgiving and Christmas — and include Swehla Garcia’s turkeys.
He says Swehla Garcia has been “great” and “really helpful” over the last half decade, with her fundraising endeavors averaging about $5,000 to $7,000 in food donations each year, often supplying about a quarter of the turkeys the food bank needs.
The food bank typically distributes about 2,000 meals for Thanksgiving and 1,200 for Christmas, CEO Leonard Hansen said.
“It features a turkey, and cranberries and stuffing and all the things you’d expect in a Thanksgiving meal,” Leonard said last week at the San Joaquin County Fairgrounds, where meals were being handed out before the food-focused holiday. “We will probably serve north of 2,700, which is more than we thought (we’d do) and more than we did last year and the year before.”
Almost 300 of the turkeys given away this year were donated thanks to Swehla Garcia’s efforts, Garza said. He also added that she came through when the food bank was short roughly 800 cans — about half — of the cranberry sauce it needed.
“If I need something, all I’ve got to do is call Anne and she’ll raise the money to get it,” Garza said, noting that she often calls him first to see how else she can help.
But both Swehla Garcia and Garza say the community at large also does its part each year.
There are so many people doing good things, Swehla Garcia said, whether it’s donating dog food, feeding the homeless, baking cookies or sending packages to soldiers. Being inspired by her fellow community members and wanting to be connected to the community itself is what got her donation efforts started. What keeps her going is the need.
“Stockton is a small town with big town problems, … and if you focus on that small town part, you can really make a difference,” Swehla Garcia said. “Whatever you have, whatever your skill is, you can find that way to give.”