BY VIRGINIA STILL
Arriving at the office on Wednesday morning was normal routine for me until I pulled up to the office. I was greeted outside by a colleague that advised me that my day was going to be made once I entered the office. As I accelerated my steps, entered the office and turned the corner I saw a box and several coins on the counter. I looked a bit closer and written on the box was a message: “give this back to the smog lady.”
On Feb. 24 we ran a story in The News about local business Freedom Smog, which had been the victim of theft only a few months after opening on Patterson Road. Owner Cristina Portillo was devastated and heartbroken that anyone would take the military challenge coins and other special law enforcement coins that were generously donated to her smog shop. The coins were in a glass case in her shop and have no monetary value. The coins have a different kind of value, especially to Portillo, who knows that the military coins especially are truly irreplaceable and were given to veterans, or the survivors of those that gave the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.
To get the coins back, Portillo even offered a cash reward with hope that someone may return them to where they belong.
“To be honest, as a new small business owner in Riverbank I felt the un-welcomed bad taste in my mouth about the community when the coins went missing,” added Portillo. “I dealt with so many emotions of anger and disbelief regarding a town that I heard so many great things about.
“However, the support from The Riverbank News, the Sheriff’s department and the community of Riverbank demonstrated the strength and courage of what America is all about and I couldn’t be any more proud of being a part of such a great place to live and do business in.”
Portillo and supporters had continued praying for the safe return of the coins even though several weeks had already passed with no resolving of the situation.
To our surprise on that Wednesday morning, April 6, when a package wrapped in a plastic bag was discovered with a taped up box and the challenge coins inside, prayers were answered. The package was dropped through the mail slot of the Oakdale Leader’s front door, specifically addressed to the “smog lady.”
A call was made to Portillo asking her to come to The Leader office because we had something special to give her and she arrived with business associates Ron Sims and Marco Rivas and a heart filled with hope that maybe it was the return of the challenge coins.
As we guided her to the conference room she saw the coins on the table. Tears of joy filled her eyes, her hand covered her mouth and the room was filled with a powerful feeling of faith and hope for humanity. The emotion was felt by all that were in that little room with tears that filled our eyes. Whether you want to believe it was a miracle from God or just a lucky break, the return of the coins is an epic end to a not so great beginning.
“I am still in disbelief,” said Portillo. “I cannot believe every single coin was returned.”
The person who had the coins could have done anything with them but for some reason they had a change of heart and returned the coins to the newspaper office, which helped get them back to their rightful owner. Portillo was very grateful for the return of the coins and thankful to all the people that donated other coins due to the original story.
With watery eyes, Portillo turned to me and said “I have something for you as well.” She then pulled a Gold Star flag and handkerchief out of her bag and presented it to me. This was given to her from a family whose son, Corporal Charles O. Palmer II, was killed in action in Iraq in 2007 and with their permission she passed it on to me since I have two sons currently serving in the Marine Corps.
“Chuck and Teri Palmer are the sweetest and were one of the first people to donate a flag for our shop along with other memorabilia of their son,” said Portillo. “They created a support program of personal care packages sent to individual troops on the front lines.
“It is their ministry to other troops standing in the gap offering the same sacrificial service to our great nation that their son gave his life for.”
For myself, I am truly honored to receive the flag and moved that Portillo would do such a nice thing for me.
The return of the coins gave Portillo more joy than the anonymous person will ever know and to that we say may good fortune find them for – ultimately – doing the right thing in returning the coins.
Freedom Smog is decorated with special military memorabilia that was donated to them from local veterans and their families. American flags line the fence as customers drive into the business for a smog check, where active duty military and veterans can get a smog check for free.
Portillo said she is extremely thankful to our military and their families for their sacrifice so that we can maintain our freedom in this country.
The emotional reunion of the coins with the “smog lady” left an overwhelming feeling of goodness at The Leader office. Even if there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.