The 7-Eleven employee had just finished stocking the cooler at the end of her shift and was taking out the trash when her sister pulled up to begin her shift.
That’s the way it goes most days for Reyna Vasquez and Patricia Gomez – two hard-toiling single mothers who pass each other midday and briefly chat.
At home, the story is much different.
Between them, Vasquez, 30, and Gomez, 32, have eight children ranging in age from 1 to 15 – all of whom live with them, along with the sisters’ father and three of their younger siblings, in a three-bedroom home in San Juan Capistrano.
Money is a constant struggle.
The sisters’ shift change on Friday, Dec. 7, at the 7-Eleven on the corner of El Camino Real and Avenida Pico in San Clemente went down very differently from usual.
A half-dozen or so deputies from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, including San Clemente Chief of Police Services Mike Peters and Sgt. Jesse Hernandez, swarmed the sisters to present them with a Christmas surprise:
A Secret Santa envelope containing $700 in crisp $100 bills.
“We hope (this) brings joy to your family during the holidays,” Deputy Jason Van Dusen told Gomez as she got out of the car, which also contained two of her children, Rosie Benita Gomez, 3, and Pedro Daniel Gomez, 19 months.
“Thank you,” Gomez told Van Dusen as she became emotional and hugged the deputy.
“This will be the best Christmas in a long time,” Vasquez said.
The sisters said they plan to use the $700 on gifts for their children and relatives.
The cash is the result of a partnership between the OCSD and Trauma Intervention Program (TIP) Orange County, which every year receives the money from an anonymous donor.
The non-profit TIP, whose 120-some trained volunteers in OC work with police, fire departments, and hospitals to provide emotional and practical support to people immediately after a tragedy, then leaves it up to the OCSD to find worthy recipients of the cash.
In many cases, the recipients are victims of crime or a family tragedy, but not always.
The OCSD selected the sisters for the Secret Santa gift because they’re always kind and helpful to the deputies who frequent the 7-Eleven, which is a near a Metrolink station and in an area frequented by homeless people.
Vasquez, who has an 11-year-old daughter, and Gomez, who has seven children, were the first recipients of TIP’s $7,500 Secret Santa giving campaign this year. More than 10 O.C. families will be presented with cash gifts next week, and the campaign also will include spontaneous patrol giving in which deputies will stop individuals in the community and surprise them with cash gifts.
TIP Volunteer Margaret Mueller, who spent 21 years in law enforcement, helped present the $700 to the sisters. Mueller wore a Christmas tree hat and bells around her neck. The nail on her wedding finger had a “Blue Lives Matter” design on it.
Deputies in San Clemente who work the 6 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. shift put their heads together and decided the sisters should receive the $700, Hernandez said.
“We come here a lot for coffee and drinks, and Patty and Reyna are always very hospitable,” Hernandez said.
Vasquez has worked at the 7-Eleven for 12 years. Her sister got her the job there.
Gomez has worked at the 7-Eleven for several years but took four years off before returning in August.
Vasquez used to live in Santa Ana but moved in with her sister and her other relatives that same month to help with rent and other bills.
“I’m a good person,” Vasquez said. “I have a big heart. I love my family, especially my sister.”
Late Friday afternoon, Vasquez tended to her busy household while Gomez worked. Her shift ends at 10:15 p.m.
“I’ve been texting my sister all afternoon,” Vasquez said, “and we’re still in shock.”