BEEVILLE – “If you read my Facebook page you know it was my mother working through me,” John “El Sapo” Gutierrez said Saturday evening, Aug. 24.
Gutierrez was grinning as he wiped the tears of pure joy off his cheeks.
A birthday party he and some supporters had organized at Flournoy Park that evening was still going, and he had been dealing with emotions since it started.
“I haven’t been able to take off my sunglasses all day,” he said.
“It was just overwhelming to be able to get the community together,” the sales consultant said as he sat at his desk at Aztec Chevrolet Monday.
Minutes before he made the comment about his mother, Gutierrez and community members who had gathered with him to celebrate the 10th birthday of Jessi Spann had watched the joy on the face of the birthday girl as she looked up to see her special gift.
And the birthday present was special indeed.
When Mickie Ochoa, co-owner of Angel Care Ambulance Service, opened the side door to one of the 911 emergency provider ambulances, Jessi was overcome with joy to see a new wheelchair sitting inside.
This was no ordinary piece of equipment like the one she was sitting in at the time. It was a brand-new, special chair just like the one that someone had stolen from the back of her mother’s truck in June.
Gutierrez said he first became interested in the plight of the little girl in the wheelchair after he read a notice from her mother on Facebook.
The special chair had just been stolen and Jessi’s mom, Taylor, had written a heartfelt plea requesting any information that could lead to its recovery.
It was not like just anyone could use the stolen chair. Gutierrez said the chair had been specially engineered for only Jessi. It had been built to her size and had the special features she needs to be able to get around with her special needs.
Jessi has three diseases which interfere with her ability to move about on her own. Those are cerebral palsy, autism and epilepsy.
When someone stole her wheelchair, she was devastated. That was when Gutierrez sprang into action.
“The first call I made was to Freddy Morón,” Gutierrez said. He figured the owner of TLC Pharmacy would have the necessary connections to get another wheelchair made for the Jessi.
“He just kind of took over from there,” Gutierrez said of Morón.
Morón contacted Russell Medical of Corpus Christi and started the order for a new chair.
“We were the ones who came up with the money,” Gutierrez said of his group of volunteers. The goal was to raise about $57,000 for the device.
“Freddy threw in the first $1,000,” Gutierrez said. Another $1,000 came from an “anonymous donor.”
After that the money poured in with major donors contributing between $100 and $1,000 each.
There was money left over, and Gutierrez and his fellow organizers started planning Saturday’s big event.
The chair would be ready in time for Jessi’s 10th birthday, so the organizers decided to throw a huge party at Flournoy Park and invite the entire community.
The organizers used the leftover money to purchase pizzas and drinks for the large crowd they expected.
The party started at 5:30 p.m., and just before 7 o’clock, Jessi, sitting in a wheelchair she could not operate on her own, was wheeled over to a place where an ambulance was parked.
The excitement on Jessi’s face made the entire effort worthwhile as she began to clap her hands the instant she saw the new chair.
The birthday girl was moved to her new vehicle, and partygoers wiped away the tears of joy as she beamed at everyone.
Gutierrez gave Jessi a little push in the new chair, and everyone cheered.
“I thought the whole community would turn out for this,” Gutierrez said as he wiped the tears off his cheek minutes after giving Jessi the little push.
Although the crowd was not as large as organizers had expected, it might have been hard to get many more well-wishers into the park.
There were plenty of leftover pizzas and drinks, so many of those who had come to the party took boxes home.
Gutierrez offered a special thanks to the first responders who appeared at the event. There were deputies from the Bee County Sheriff’s Office and a large contingent from the Beeville Police Department; the Beeville Volunteer Fire Department had put out a notice for its members to show up, and they did.
Most of the staff from Angel Care had made it as well.
Although the majority of those present had never met Jessi, they left knowing they had a new friend.
Gutierrez was thankful for the support he received from businesses, churches, Kicker 106 radio station, Julio’s Cafe and Aztec Chevrolet, to name just a few.
The stolen chair has never been seen again. Gutierrez said the incident makes him worry about today’s society.
“What’s happened to the good things?” Gutierrez asked Monday afternoon.
But he was uplifted by the community’s response in seeing that Jessi did not have to suffer any more because of the harm someone did on that day in June.
When asked what his next mission might be, Gutierrez leaned back with a huge grin and said, “Whatever pops up. I’m going to do what I can to help people.”
Gutierrez’s generosity did not stop when the party at Flournoy Park ended. When asked if they were able to find takers for all the leftover food and drinks, he grinned again.
“We fed the homeless with the pizzas,” he said.
Gary Kent is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 120, or at reporter@mySouTex.com.