Festive spirit draws crowd to Christmas in the Park in Merced

12/22/2013 7:11 PM

12/22/2013 11:46 PM

Hundreds turned out over the weekend for Christmas in the Park, a three-day family-friendly event at the Applegate Park amphitheater that gave people of all ages a way to have fun and show their holiday spirit.

The event featured an abundance of live entertainment and performances from dance groups, bands and school groups. Nine vendors were on hand providing food, crafts and music.

Members of Make it Happen fitness center performed Zumba dance routines that had the crowd moving and shaking like jingle bells to warm up for the holiday season. The event was hosted by Stephanie Martinez and Taj Pabla.

Area R&B music group Diamond in the Rough sang an original song called “Merry Christmas,” which member Renaud Freels, 22, called their gift to Merced.

“It’s a first-time thing in Merced, so it’s really good to see people coming together out here as a community,” he said of the event. “Hopefully next year they do it even bigger.”

The event was created by Christina Gutierrez, 36, and her husband Victor, 28, of Merced. Christina Gutierrez said she wanted to start a new tradition in Merced in which families can go to the park before Christmas, similar to an event in the San Jose area, where she’s from.

The Gutierrezes organized the event through their group, the Baby Victor Foundation, which encourages Merced residents to get involved with the community and make a change. It is named after their son, who died four days after he was born in Feb. 2012.

“When my son passed away, I was depressed for over a year. I’m still grieving,” Christina Gutierrez explained. “We started a foundation. This Christmas I wanted to do something for our community, for our youth and our families. As you can see, they have been having a lot a fun.”

The Gutierrez family had been planning the event for the last two months. “It usually takes longer, but we did it. We did it and it’s happening,” Gutierrez said.

“We had lots of ups and downs and obstacles, and we went to the City Council and we pushed for it,” Victor Gutierrez explained. “We worked really hard to make this happen for the city of Merced. Everybody tells us that Merced needs more family-oriented events, because when you have stuff like this, you really don’t have to worry about violence or anything like that. There’s no alcohol, it’s mainly for families and kids,” he said.

It was hard to get it approved, but I’m overjoyed that the City Council and Parks (and Recreation) Department approved it, and we’d like to thank them,” he said.

Many volunteers helped organize the event, and the couple wants to make it an annual holiday tradition.

Jason Nehring passed out raffle tickets to eager youngsters. “I’m helping out with whatever I can do. There’s been a great turnout. I think it’s a wonderful thing for the community,” Nehring said.

“We did a very strong promotion on Facebook, and we even had people show up out of nowhere and say: ‘Can we give you guys a hand?’ They’re here at 7 a.m., and out of nowhere, I’ve never met these people, and they already love us, and we love them for helping us,” Gutierrez said.

Christina Gutierrez said the event raised her spirits, particularly in the aftermath of losing her first and only child. She said she can no longer have children because of a bout with cancer.

“This is a big Christmas gift for me,” Christina Gutierrez said. “I don’t expect or want anything, but this makes me happy, to help kids.”

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