Carson City's Holiday with a Hero: ‘one of the coolest events we do’

Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Brian Vargas, right, takes Trueth Fernandez, second-grader, of Seeliger Elementary School shopping for Holiday with a Hero Wednesday.

Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Brian Vargas, right, takes Trueth Fernandez, second-grader, of Seeliger Elementary School shopping for Holiday with a Hero Wednesday.
Photo by Jessica Garcia.

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The toy aisles are always among the most crowded once the elementary students hit Carson City’s Market Street Walmart location for its annual Holiday with a Hero event. Shopping carts start peering out and making jovial bangs as public safety, military and medical personnel shopping with their students politely excuse themselves trying to make their way from section to section.

On Wednesday, Walmart welcomed about 170 students in kindergarten through eighth grade in Carson City School District and its McKinney-Vento Program. In all, there were approximately 300 volunteers assisting for the event itself, with at least 150 guiding students as they shopped, 75 assisting with wrapping and others on assorted tasks.

Carson City District Court bailiff and Holiday with a Hero program organizer Meliah Gonzales said the event is in its 19th year. She said volunteers work at building healthy mentorships with students.

“I think Christmas is exciting for kids in general,” Gonzales said. “Some of these students have had negative interactions with law enforcement and we want to do our best to repair that interaction.”

The event has three missions, Gonzales said. She said the board and its supporters were excited to help meet each of them.

“Our first is to provide students with an item of need, and to provide with Christmas in general, and our third mission, which is most important to me, is connect with students and to provide a positive interaction with them while they’re here for the day,” Gonzales said.

Holiday with a Hero centers on students who are eligible for services under the McKinney-Vento Program and are experiencing homelessness or transitional housing. Gonzales said it’s important to the law enforcement, medical and military members serving in the program to help “love the heck out of students” while they shop for a day and said the long-term benefits in its 19 years has been fruitful.

Carson City School District’s McKinney-Vento liaison and special projects coordinator Hannah Etchison said the event ensures students to have something to open on Christmas morning in addition to the provisions from the district’s program such as clothing or food items.

Holiday with a Hero wrapping volunteers prepare for students at their stations at the 3200 Market St. Walmart Wednesday.


“I think it’s not only awesome that the kids get all of these gifts for Christmas but the experience of the event, that they get out of school, get to meet with a hero and get to pick out their toys and then get them wrapped and delivered,” Etchison said. “It’s an experience that can’t be beat.”

Etchison referred to CCSD’s McKinney-Vento’s recent winter coat drive. District spokesman Dan Davis said this resulted in a large collection of coats and monetary donations to help students who designated winter coats as a need for Holiday with a Hero. The coat donations encourage the students to use their money for something else.

“Our community has come together our whole holiday season, and just the outpouring of monetary donations … has been really cool to see,” Etchison said.

Gonzales said support for the program at the volunteer and donation level has kept Holiday with a Hero going largely because former students and families have been willing to give back to it.

“I’ve had some people come back to me and bring me $10 and say it’s not much but it’s what they have, and the reason they’re bringing me $10 is because we either served their children or their family in one capacity or another and they no longer need those services,” she said.

She described seeing former students graduate and attend college who now work for companies that give back to Holiday with a Hero.

“The cycle of being able to see people that have been served now give back is incredible,” she said.

The Carson City Sheriff’s Office had many of its officers and volunteers assisting Wednesday, including Linda Hernandez with the department’s Volunteers in Partnership program. Hernandez, a Spanish speaker, took two students shopping, both of whom did not speak English and helped them find their items.

Officers start getting familiar with their students’ needs or wishes according to their lanyards for Holiday with a Hero before shopping.


“I did it last year, and the experience itself is overwhelming,” Hernandez said. “They’re very appreciative. This one wants to be a police officer. They’re very happy. … It’s just an amazing thing Walmart does.”

Hernandez said she was happy to be a part of the effort as a volunteer, describing how many others have to work and to be able to receive the time off to dedicate to Holiday with a Hero.

“We need all the help we can get,” she said. “…It’s an amazing opportunity.”

Carson City Sheriff Ken Furlong said it always catches his attention that this event is the one time of year when so many emergency professionals have an opportunity to gather all at once for a good cause.

“These kids will remember when something took place and those heroes will live forever,” Furlong said. “The National Guard, the different agencies across Northern Nevada, this is one time we’re all here together and this is one time about the only time we get – on good terms.”

He said it also helps to fill voids for family members and students who might feel left out during the holidays to help create something more positive.

Gonzales said she thought “thank you” weren’t the correct words to use as she thought about seeing the heroes walk around the store interacting with students.

“My heart is full this time of year,” she said. “I love children, all children. We’re connected with them on a deeper level.”

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