June 22, 2014

Monday Merced Matters: Merced native grills up smiles

Joey Chavez likely has cooked thousands of pounds of chicken, tri-tip and carne asada as part of his goal to fill bellies and put smiles on faces. The employee of the city of Merced spends much of his free time helping youngsters raise money, not to mention the landscaping he does for elderly widows in Livingston.

Those who have tasted a barbecued chicken, tri-tip or carne asada for a fundraiser here in the past two decades likely were enjoying the work of Joey Chavez.

The Merced native has cooked thousands of pounds of chicken, tri-tip and carne asada during hundreds of barbecues since 1997. It’s all part of his goal to fill bellies and put smiles on faces.

“I just love serving people, seeing the smiles on their face,” the 43-year-old said. “Having them say, ‘Hey, can I have some more?’ ”

Volunteering can be easy to do, if you’re doing something you love. But Chavez does spend a significant amount of time away from his family volunteering to cook for baseball, football, basketball and other fundraisers. “Sometimes I think I should say no, but I don’t,” he said. “Whatever it takes.”

Giving others his time is also a good way to be outdoors, he said, while meeting new people and running into old friends.

Chavez grew up an athlete, playing baseball at Merced High School, Merced College and San Jose State, where he got a full-ride scholarship as a southpaw. His connection to athletics moved him into his career as the sports and aquatic recreation supervisor in Merced.

“What I received as a child, I just want to give back as a recreation supervisor,” he said. “That’s why I enjoy, with the city of Merced, what I do.”

To ask Chavez about his weekend is to ask for a story about putting together a barbecue for hundreds of people on short notice, said Mike Conway, who oversees Merced’s Parks and Recreation Department.

Chavez often will get a last-minute call from an acquaintance or someone he doesn’t know. “He’d end up surrendering his Saturday to those people,” Conway said. “They’re not even groups that he has any direct ties to.”

He called Chavez “a family man,” which can put Chavez in a difficult situation when people call him for his skills behind the grill. Despite time lost with his son, 19, and daughters, 16 and 13, Chavez seems to never say “no.”

Chavez spent Friday cooking about 175 pounds of carne asada for a Livingston High girls basketball team benefit. “During his vacation, mind you,” Conway said. “He’s that kind of person. Once he makes the commitment, he will follow through.”

As a deputy grand knight with the Knights of Columbus, Chavez is often involved with serving Holy Communion to Catholics who cannot leave their homes. He’s also been known to landscape the yards of area widows, according to longtime friend Henry Garcia of Livingston.

“That is hard work,” the 62-year-old said. “I’m talking mowing the lawn, pruning, weeding. I mean, it’s a lot of work.”

Garcia lives next to Chavez’s in-laws; they met when Chavez was dating Patricia, now his wife of 22 years. The two men bonded over roasting tri-tip on a grill and have teamed for many a barbecue fundraiser.

He admits he’s waited until the eleventh hour to call Chavez, who is “always” ready to spark up the grill. Garcia said it’s a good idea to call Chavez if you want a tasty meal of smoked meat. “You’ve got to love cooking for your food to taste good,” he said. “When you start cooking for 50, 100, 200, 300 people, it is very taxing. And I’ve never heard him complain.”

Giving up time to help others can go a long way, Chavez said, especially during a difficult economy, which Merced County is slowly working its way out of.

The past few years have been rough for Merced’s Parks and Recreation Department. The overall budget for programs in 2013-14 was about 40 percent of its size in 2005-06, the last year before the recession took hold. Since then, the department has had to manage with a considerably smaller staff and fewer program offerings.

Chavez said he hears the complaints of city residents who want more services for young people, an outcry that was particularly loud this month during budget talks. Although the money is not there, he said, programs are available.

Many of the programs get an assist from the people willing to put in volunteer hours. “It’s not just me, there’s a lot of us out there that are helping out the youth,” he said. “Whenever people can help, that’s a big thing for the city.”

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