This is a story of a Christmas miracle.
Three years ago Phil Waterford and his employees were cleaning up his Manteca Ford dealership showroom after serving more than 1,000 people free breakfast on Christmas Eve when a family showed up.
There were nine children and a grandmother. Several of their kids had their faces pressed against the plate glass showroom window.
Waterford remembers approaching the family and preparing to tell them they missed the breakfast.
But before he could say anything, one of the kids piped up.
“You guys have any more food?” was the question.
“They didn’t ask about toys (we were giving away),” Waterford recalled. “They asked about food.”
Considering they had what Waterford termed “enough food left over to feed a small army,” he had staff members fire the stove back up and proceeded to serve the family breakfast.
In talking with the grandmother, Waterford learned they had left Stockton earlier that morning but their vehicle had broken down several times.
When he went outside to look at it, he couldn’t believe his eyes.
It was a Ford Bronco. And it was clearly not safe to be on the road.
“I hadn’t seen a Ford Bronco for 30 years since O.J. led a slow speed chase through Los Angeles,” Waterford said.
Waterford had his staff bring up a demo they had just turned into a service department loaner and turned the keys over to the grandmother.
Waterford learned a little bit about the family. He got contact information so he could stay in touch with the grandmother to see how they were doing.
Spider bite puts
things in motion
On one follow-up call, he asked how things were going. The answer stunned him. The youngest girl had been bitten by a spider. When Waterford asked when, he was told it was four days earlier. The grandmother added she didn’t take her to the doctor because she had no insurance.
“You can go to any emergency room in the country and they will take care of you regardless of whether you have money,” Waterford remembered thinking.
Waterford said that he would be right there and that he would take the girl to the hospital himself and pay for the costs.
When he arrived at the home he found conditions that he said weren’t livable.
The girl hadn’t had her diaper changed in a while. The grandmother could only find one shoe for the girl. He also noticed her fingernails were falling off. He would later find out it was from malnutrition. The girl had been fed a diet of left over fast food, candy, and soda.
Waterford took her to the hospital where doctors noted she wasn’t in good shape. She spent several days in the hospital as they pumped the toxins out of her system.
It was at that point that Waterford made a decision that would change his life, that of Deziary who is now nearing her fifth birthday, that of his family, and that of kids he had yet to meet.
“I decided she was going to come home with me so we could bring her back to health,” Waterford said.
Forget the fact he wasn’t a relative. He hadn’t even involved Child Protection Services.
When he told the grandmother of his plan, she simply asked, “Are you sure this won’t be a hardship for you?”
Waterford said it wouldn’t. That evening as the Waterford family was at home with Deziary watching the movie “Frozen” in their home theater she turned to Waterford and said, “Dad, I’m happy I’m here.”
The grandmother didn’t contact Waterford until 30 days later. When she came by the house, she said she wanted to take Deziary to lunch. Waterford offered to serve them lunch at his home or go out to a restaurant as he didn’t want Deziary slipping back into a fast food habit.
Over the next several hours, Waterford repeatedly called the grandmother but got no answer. Eventually the grandmother turned her phone off.
What Waterford did next was further put him and his wife Rose on a new course. He decided he was going to get custody of Deziary.
“I wasn’t a relative,” Waterford said. “I had no legal standing.”
Phil and Rose Waterford
welcome a daughter
into their lives
He found out that the grandmother wanted Deziary back as the county threatened to cut off welfare payments when they found out she was not living with her. He also learned the girl’s mother was incarcerated and that the father was nowhere to be found.
Waterford enlisted a paralegal and went to court. The Stanislaus Superior Court judge — based on the situation as well as the legal filings and perhaps as much by the grandmother’s conduct in court — awarded the Waterfords custody of Deziary until her 18th birthday.
By chance the same day Waterfords’ dream house — located next to a vacant lot the family owned in Modesto’s Fleur-De-Ville neighborhood near Pelandale and Dale roads — went up for sale. He called the agent — with never having seen the inside — and said he’d pay whatever they wanted for it.
“That isn’t a smart way to negotiate,” Waterford said.
The Waterfords were ecstatic.
But then when the house was in escrow, Waterford started getting cold feet.
Their oldest son Phil Jr., 32, was married and had his own home. Son Eric, 27, was living in Seattle. Brandon, 17, was a scholar-athlete a year away from going to college. Their fourth son — Amare — was 8.
“What I should be doing was looking at downsizing, not moving up a larger home,” the 52-year-old Waterford said of the 10,000-squsare-foot home.
The couple wasn’t too sure what to do. Waterford slept on it and prayed.
Then it came to him. The reason for buying the house was right in front of them.
Waterford talked with his wife and laid out his vision. The house was too large just for their family — including Deziary who they are now in the process of legally adopting. Both he and his wife knew there were a lot of kids out there that needed a family and a home that were extremely hard to place due to their age or other issues. Four to five of the 10 bedrooms in the sprawling home, he said, would have to be filled with foster kids.
Rose didn’t hesitate a second. They would open their home to kids in need regardless of gender or ethnic background.
Waterford went ahead and pulled the trigger
You never stop
being a parent
Today there are two more children in the Waterford home.
“It doesn’t matter that they are blue eyed and blonde haired,” Waterford said. “They are our children and will always be our children even after they grow up. You never stop being a parent.”
How Phil and Rose Waterford are expanding their family may not come as a surprise to the countless individuals they’ve helped or the community groups that benefit from their generosity.
Waterford — a real life version of Jimmy Stewart’s character George Bailey in the Frank Capra classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” — is legendary when it comes to his generosity.
Reading about a deputy sheriff struggling to make mortgage payments, Waterford pulled out his checkbook. He’s stepped up to help the family of young pedestrian struck in a Yosemite Avenue crosswalk. He made sure the expense for bringing the Vietnam Moving Wall to Manteca was covered. He’s given new or late model cars to struggling veterans and single moms. That’s just the tip of the proverbial ice berg.
Waterford also believes in the little gestures. They range from getting a lady whose turn signals weren’t working on Main Street one day to pull over and then follow him to his dealership where he had them fixed for free to not pressing charges as well as stepping up to help a homeless man who damaged vehicles on his North Main Street lot.
The Christmas Eve morning breakfast launched nine years ago is part of that generosity. Last Saturday 1,321 people dined in the showroom on a meal prepared by volunteers from the Manteca Rotary and Inner City Action with much of the fixings donated by NuLaid Eggs of Ripon, Foster Farms, and Crystal Dairies. Walgreens stepped up with free flu shots. Starbucks provided hot chocolate and coffee. Police Chief Nick Obligacion provided a number of In-n-Out gift cards while countless donors dropped by toys for kids.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s Christmas magic,” Waterford said of the Christmas Eve morning gathering.
Stressing that he’s “not a Bible thumper,” it is clear that Waterford is driven by his Christianity.
And it’s not just as defined by his generosity and interaction with people. He firmly believes in God and divine providence and doesn’t shirk from saying so.
“We always open our breakfasts with a prayer led by Pastor Mike Dillman,” Waterford said.
Yes, Waterford does sell cars and services them. That’s his bread and butter.
Generosity fueled by
high end, exotic car sales
In the 20 plus years he’s owned Manteca Ford and Exotic High Line he’s strived to provide customers “with good deals on good cars” and quality service that matches or is slightly lower than the competition.
While he has stayed put in a dealership location that dates back into the 1940s to help keep overhead low, Waterford will be the first to admit selling Ford Focuses isn’t what enables Manteca Ford to give back to the community to the degree that they do.
That’s where the exotic high line cars come in.
On Thursday, Waterford and his staff were turning over the keys to a 2016 Bentley GTC that was parked next to a 2016 Lamborghini and a 2016 BMW Aspire — it had been owned by Reese Witherspoon — that were behind a row of 2017 Ford Mustangs.
Waterford and Manteca Ford have become known throughout Northern California and beyond as the go to place for late model lease returns of luxury vehicles and top end sports cars. The most exotic vehicle that has passed through his dealership is a Bugatti Chiron considered by many auto aficionados as the world’s most powerful, the fastest, most luxurious and most exclusive production super sports car ever made.
If you go to Oakland’s Oracle Arena during a Golden State Warriors’ game, you will see the parking lot for players and VIPs populated with pricey late model lease returns displaying license plate holders reading, “Phil Waterford’s Manteca Ford & Exotic High Line.”
His venture into late model lease returns started several years after buying the dealership when he obtained two Jaguars.
“Everyone thought I was crazy,” Waterford recalled. “They told me there was no market for late model Jaguars in Manteca.”
The two Jaguars sold in days. He bought three more at auction. They sold in days as well. Soon he was selling more pre-owned, late model, short lease return Jaguars than authorized Jaguar dealers in the Bay Area and Sacramento.
Even so, Waterford said his biggest joy comes from buying vehicles such as a 1992 15-passbneger van with 40,000 miles on it and a 1998 S-10 pickup with 63,000 miles recently at auction.
Most new car dealerships would pass on such older vehicles for their used car lot as would many that exclusively sell used vehicles. But Waterford said getting them in tip top shape and making them available for a family where it will meet their needs and they can afford “is extremely rewarding.”
The way Waterford sees life is simple — his business and his time here on earth are vehicles for doing good.
The fact that he is now on a road to fill a lifelong role as a parent to kids he has yet to meet along with his wife Rose, four sons and new daughter by taking them into their home, hearts, and lives makes everything all the more sweeter.
“Every child deserves to be wanted and loved,” Waterford said. “It’s a blessing that we can do that.”