For the first time in more than eight months, Nelson Toala returned to the Driskill Hotel the place he has worked as a chef for more than a decade.
Except in lieu of his chef’s uniform, Toala, 65, wore jeans, a long sleeve gray shirt, a hat and was accompanied by his wife Maria and a designated cane. The couple were honored guests Monday, as they helped continue the tradition of lighting the hotel’s Christmas tree.
The Toala family is part of the Statesman’s Season for Caring program, which helps hundreds of families each year through local nonprofit agencies. The Toala family was nominated by Meals on Wheels Central Texas.
Since 2015, the Driskill has welcomed Season For Caring families to be part of this tradition, which also includes dinner and a one-night stay, typically in the Cattle Baron suite. The Driskill also has hosted the Cookies for Caring event each year, which raises money for Season for Caring.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the hotel’s annual traditions look a little different this year. The virtual tree lighting event, which normally floods the downstairs lobby with people, is virtual, and guests and supporters will only be able to tune in online.
Cookies for Caring, which sells tins of cookies prepared by local bakeries, restaurants and hotel restaurants, will continue this year, but instead of having an event to pick up cookies, the cookies will be prepackaged in tins.
This year cookies from the Driskill, Hyatt Regency Austin, Hyatt Regency Lost Pines and Miravel Austin will fill the tins. Tins are available at driskillhotel.com for $50 and can be picked up in the hotel lobby 4-6 p.m. Dec. 17-19.
Since 2015 that event has raised $40,000 for Season for Caring.
To keep the spirit of the tree lighting tradition alive, a small group of hotel staff, Meals on Wheels staff and fellow employees joined the celebration when Toala would flip the switch.
Monday’s tree lighting was prerecorded and streamed on the Driskill’s Facebook page at 6 p.m. Tuesday.
Toala has been absent from his chef job since March.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, he was temporarily furloughed from his job, but before he could return to the kitchen he had a stroke leaving him with partial paralysis on his right side, making it difficult to walk on his own, shower or cook.
He is the primary caregiver for Maria, and now his two granddaughters Alexssandra, 10, and Isabela, 8, who live with them.
For months, Nelson Toala has been struggling to be able to provide for his family, but with the help of local organizations, like Meals on Wheels, and the love of the staff at the Driskill, they have been able to get by, Toala says.
Since May, Meals on Wheels has been able to provide the family with meals each week and also connected them with resources that have helped with mortgage and utility assistance, and other needs.
While Toala said he was humbled by the help he has received from the program, his caseworker Connie Miralrio, said it is humbling for her to get to work with him and his family, who immigrated here in 2006 from Ecuador, where he was a pharmacist.
“I learn from my clients,” Miralrio said. “I have never had a client like Nelson (Toala) and to hear about all that he has accomplished and achieved, and what he had to do to get here. It’s humbling for us to get to help him. He has such a big heart, and we just love working with him.”
Several of the hotel’s employees also shared kind words about Toala, some coming down to personally greet him and Maria, while others chimed in via FaceTime.
Mark Bedford, director of operations at the Driskill, said work days without Toala have not been the same.
Toala worked in the employee cafeteria, and always had a smile and a kind word for everyone he fed. Without him, that is now missing for everyone’s day, Bedford said.
“If you were having a bad day, you could go down and see Nelson (Toala) and he would put a smile on your face, and he’d make you want to go back to work,” Bedford said. “That is just the kind of person he is.”
As Toala works to get better, which has required lots of physical therapy and rest, he said faith, and the love of the community and his family have helped him through. He said he plans to return to the Driskill not just for his one-night stay with Maria and his two granddaughters, but to work again in the kitchen as a chef.
“This is a miracle of human affection, and it’s a good feeling,” Toala said. “I feel so blessed to have so many people surround me and support what I need to continue in these crazy times.”
The Toala family needs help with plumbing repairs and bathroom repairs, as well as mortgage payments and utilities. The girls need computers and internet service for school. The family would like gift cards for H-E-B, Walmart, Old Navy, Marshalls, Target and gas.
To find out more about the Toala family or to donate an item on the wish list, contact Meals on Wheels Central Texas, 512-476-6325, mealsonwheelscentraltexas.org. The family is also registered on Amazon.