Jeff Jardine

Hit-and-run crash becomes giving moment for MJC auto body students

This is one of those times when folks really stepped up to help someone in need.

Two days after Christmas, the driver of a silver double-cab pickup truck smashed into a specially equipped van used to transport Anthony De La Garza of Empire. The pickup hit two other vehicles as well, then sped away. A hit-and-run. But the victim really wasn’t the van left with a bashed-in fender and other damage.

No, the victim was De La Garza, who relies on the Dodge Ram van to have any type of a normal life. In 2000, he suffered a series of strokes that left him paralyzed from the neck down. He is unable to talk and needs a feeding tube for nourishment. The van is his only source of freedom. His mother, Josie Halcon, uses it to drive him to church, the movies and the park. The family’s insurance coverage didn’t cover the repairs, and the family could not afford them out of pocket.

Halcon came to The Modesto Bee the following week, angry and exasperated because her son’s already difficult existence suddenly had become even more so, and by someone who simply doesn’t give a rat’s backside about De La Garza or anyone else.

I wrote about their plight, and the morning the column appeared I received a phone call from Julie Beebe, an English teacher at Davis High. De La Garza’s story moved her to tears. She wanted to help and came up with a plan – one that not only helped De La Garza but changed some other lives as well.

Beebe’s husband, Jeff Beebe, is the auto body collision repair instructor at Modesto Junior College. He deals, you could say, in wheels, and his wife certainly got them rolling in this case. Julie Beebe called Halcon and had her bring the van to the college. It arrived Jan. 15.

Jeff Beebe told some 20 students in his classes what had happened and how they could help. It became their mission. The students went through the van from one end to the other, making repairs that had nothing to do with the crash. They repaired the body and fender. They repainted it and upgraded the air conditioning. Beebe enlisted the help of Brent Burnside of Burnside Auto Body, an MJC alum. Burnside donated some of the parts. And he, in turn, recruited McCoy Tire Co. to donate some new tires to replace the existing 15-year-old rubber. They are awaiting new parts for the wheelchair lift, so old that replacement parts will need to be milled.

Friday morning, Halcon brought her son to the school’s auto body shop, where he saw his restored van for the first time. Tears flowed, mostly from the staff and students who set out to right the hit-and-run driver’s wrong and did so in a major way.

One, Paul Karranco, had seen the column when it appeared in January. Karranco, who once was homeless and slept in just such a van, benefited from the kindness of others. He is now enrolled in the college program, housed and raising a young daughter. His heart went out to De La Garza.

“I prayed for this to happen,” he said. “I wanted this to be my project, and I prayed that I wanted to help. It gave me the chance.”

Pedro Mendez, the long-titled MJC dean who oversees the program, felt it was appropriate for the college students to gain valuable experience, not only regarding auto body repair but also in giving to the community.

“It had to be more than skill development,” he said. “It had to be about what you can give back.”

Halcon thanked them for their work and their kindness. After the hit-and-run in December, some friends started an online fundraising account that grew to $5,000. Because of the kindness of the Beebes, Burnside, McCoy and the students, it’s still sitting in an account. They covered everything. She promises the money will go only toward her son’s van for future repairs and maintenance, comprehensive insurance coverage and whatever else.

Anthony, too, wanted to express his gratitude. He looked at his mother. She understood.

“He says, ‘Thank you,’ ” she said.

Grown men wiped tears from their eyes. He’ll soon have his van – and his freedom – back, and with air conditioning, too. A job well done.