On Christmas Eve 2019, the staff at a McDonald’s restaurant go about their day, taking orders and handing patrons their burgers. And when a vehicle enters the drive-thru, it’s just one of many that the workers see that day. But when this car approaches the order window, the woman in the driver’s seat mouths a concerning phrase. Then, as the employees realize that something is really wrong, they immediately spring into action.
When you’ve been at work just before Christmas, you’ve likely counted down the hours until you can finally leave and relax at home surrounded by your loved ones. And while the staff on the Christmas Eve shift at a McDonald’s in Lodi, California, may have been doing just that in 2019, they soon found events taking a shocking turn.
It all began when a lady walked into the fast-food restaurant and approached the counter in the early afternoon. And to begin with, the workers at the branch would’ve been forgiven for thinking that she was just like any other customer; in this particular instance, though, that wasn’t the case.
You see, before the woman headed to the bathroom, she asked the McDonald’s employees to contact the emergency services. Then she eventually returned to her vehicle and drove towards the restaurant’s drive-thru. And once she got to the window, the distressed lady again intimated that something wasn’t right, spurring the staff on to act – and quickly.
When hunger strikes, it can often be very tempting to travel to our local McDonald’s. And certainly, plenty of people across the planet chow down on food from the famous chain; back in 2012, Business Insider claimed that the company was selling burgers more than 75 times per second worldwide. Americans in particular are big fans of the Golden Arches.
And if you find yourself traveling in the U.S., there’s a high chance that you’ll spot plenty of McDonald’s along the way. As of 2019, in fact, there are more than 14,000 McDonald’s restaurants across the nation. But in certain parts of California, the fast-food chain offers up something else alongside its usual fare.
You see, some restaurants in the Golden State are part of what’s known as the “Safe Place” initiative. These particular franchises can be found in Amador and Sacramento as well as San Joaquin – the same county in which the worried woman visited a McDonald’s.
The scheme itself began back in 1983 at a YMCA facility in Louisville, Kentucky. It was dubbed “Project Safe Place” at the time and targeted youngsters in need up to the age of 17. A charity known as National Safe Place was ultimately established, too.
Then, in the years that followed, the initiative started to spread across America in the following years, with 40 states hosting so-called “Safe Places” as of 2019. So, what does the project actually do? Well, National Safe Place provided a few details on its website.
The charity wrote, “Safe Place is a national youth outreach and prevention program for young people under the age of 18 (up to 21 years of age in some communities) in need of immediate help and safety. As a collaborative community prevention initiative, Safe Place designates businesses and organizations as Safe Place locations.”
“[This makes] help readily available to youth in communities across the country,” National Safe Place continued. “Safe Place locations include libraries, YMCAs, fire stations, public buses, various businesses and social service facilities.” Each of those venues also features a yellow and black sign that simply reads “Safe Place.”
It’s believed that more than 22,000 Safe Places have been established around America, with these in turn having helped thousands of young people. National Safe Place claims on its website that more than 1,400 local communities have been involved, too.
“Most young people hear about Safe Place during school or community presentations where Safe Place information cards are distributed,” National Safe Place explained. “These cards have the local Safe Place phone number and [explain] that Safe Place help is free and confidential. Youth also hear about the program through word of mouth, social media and public service announcements on radio or TV.”
That said, there are certain steps that need to be taken when a youngster first walks into a Safe Place. After the individual asks the people there for assistance, they’re sent to a different spot in the building where they are out of danger. Then, following that, staff have to make an important phone call.
Specifically, while the young person is waiting within the building, employees are required to contact their “licensed Safe Place agency.” Then, within half an hour, a member of said agency will make their way over to the location and finally begin their work.
This Safe Place employee will ultimately sit down for a conversation with the youth in order to discuss their specific issues. After that, the pair may leave the Safe Place and travel to the agency itself, where counselors can advise the affected individual further.
But that’s not all. The National Safe Place website revealed, “Agency staff makes sure the youth and their families receive the help and professional services they need. Along with accessing Safe Place in person, youth may also ‘TXT 4 HELP’ to receive information about the closest Safe Place location.”
And in some cases, the nearest Safe Place may be a McDonald’s. Indeed, the Golden State Restaurant Group has confirmed that all of its branches of the fast-food chain in California are part of the scheme – and that includes those in San Joaquin County.
To help explain why it was so important for a company such as McDonald’s to get involved in the program, a county official offered her thoughts. Tori Verber Salazar, who works as San Joaquin’s district attorney, touched upon the subject during an interview with the Golden State Restaurant Group. And over the course of that conversation, she raised some interesting points.
Salazar told the organization, “Safe Place is a wonderful partnership. [It’s] a great testament to this community about their dedication and compassion to make a difference and to work with law enforcement to reduce our level of crime that occurs in our community. By doing that, we intervene early and often.”
“By having the Safe Place partnership, [it] allows us to have access to places where we know our youth are,” Salazar continued. “Such as McDonald’s, where they’re going to be coming in, and it’s a regular place and a regular hang out for them.”
After all, as Salazar claimed, young people could feel reluctant or unable to open up to authority figures or the emergency services about the issues that they are facing. They may also have no idea about the best ways in which to find help elsewhere.
Salazar added, “[The young people might not be able] to walk right into a courthouse or right into a police department. But they will go into a McDonald’s; they will go into a local business. So by having this Safe Place, [it] allows us to be where they are – not saying, ‘You come to where we are.’”
And the staff at a McDonald’s in Lodi were faced with putting the initiative into action in December 2019. Yes, on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, the employees on duty were plunged right into an urgent situation when a distressed woman walked into the restaurant. And before long, the workers realized that something wasn’t right.
Instead of walking up to the counter to order something, the lady in question had indicated that she needed assistance. And during a conversation with ABC News after the event, one member of staff revealed exactly what had happened. It seemed that the Safe Place steps quickly came into effect, too.
The McDonald’s worker said, “A guest came [into the restaurant], and she notified our employees that there was some sort of an emergency. She was in a stressful situation, [so] we encouraged her to use the restroom.” Before heading to the bathroom, though, the woman said something else.
In addition, the distraught patron advised the McDonald’s staff to contact the emergency services right away; she also shared her license plate details. But when the woman finally came back from the restroom, the situation took another worrying turn.
The San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office explained what subsequently occurred in a statement made via Facebook in December 2019. According to the authorities, the woman tried to order some food but was interrupted by her partner. His name was Eduardo Valenzuela, and he wanted her to leave the restaurant.
The sheriff’s office noted, “[Valenzuela] demanded [his partner to] use the drive-thru. While in the drive-thru, she mouthed to an employee, ‘Help me.’ Just then, deputies arrived and spoke with employees inside the restaurant. They rushed them out the door, telling them that the woman needing help was in the drive-thru line.”
“The woman was driving her vehicle with Mr. Valenzuela in the passenger seat when deputies ordered her to pull over,” the sheriff’s office continued. “During the investigation, deputies comforted the shaken woman and discovered that Valenzuela had been violent with her in the past.” That’s not the only thing they found out, though.
You see, this fateful festive trip had been fueled by a terrifying warning. As the sheriff’s office explained, “On this day, [Valenzuela] told [the woman] to take him to visit his family and threatened her life, stating he would use a firearm. A firearm was located in the trunk of the vehicle, [which was] stolen out of state.”
So, Valenzuela was ultimately apprehended by the cops. And this arrest had come after one of the McDonald’s employees had made a very smart decision. Knowing that law enforcement were on their way to the restaurant, they had slowed down the drive-thru line.
The McDonald’s worker who spoke to ABC News earlier praised her colleagues for their actions, too. She said, “It was such an exciting and proud moment for us to know that what we’re doing is working – and that our employees are comfortable handling things like that.”
The San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office also revealed the full extent of Valenzuela’s charges in the Facebook statement. The suspect, who already possessed a criminal record, was “booked into the San Joaquin County Jail for criminal threats, stolen property and felon (prohibited person) in possession of a firearm.”
Valenzuela’s bail was also set at over $350,000, meaning he was still behind bars during the festive period. In the aftermath, though, the local police and the McDonald’s staff received plenty of praise on social media for their efforts in getting Valenzuela into custody.
Since being posted on Facebook, the police statement has earned more than 4,000 likes and in excess of 1,200 shares. It’s also generated more than 960 comments from social media users – many of which were incredibly complimentary of the cops involved and their actions.
One Facebook user wrote, for example, “Great job! You may have just saved this woman’s life! I hope she is in a safe place at this moment and getting the help she needs.” Those words were echoed by another individual, who was seemingly also pleased to see the sizable online reaction to the story.
“Thanks to quick thinking by [the] McDonald’s employees and excellent work by the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office, a woman’s life was saved,” the commenter wrote. “Thank you for your Christmas miracle. This could so easily have gone the other way. And thanks to the internet and Facebook, people all over the country are reading [about] this.”
But as the comments continued to flood in, an additional statement was released by the Golden State Restaurant Group that commended all involved in Valenzuela’s apprehension. The company wrote, “We are proud of our team for doing their part in being A SAFE PLACE!”
The restaurant group added, “Thank you to our team for handling this appropriately, and to the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office Deputies who are constantly serving and protecting our community! We are proud to be in support with both a Safe Place and all of our law enforcement. Thank you for all of the community support, and please always be safe and aware.”