HCSO Officers Find the True Meaning of Christmas

By Mitch Traphagen (mitch@observernews.net)

RIVERVIEW - They didnít ask for much. In all likelihood, they didnít expect much. For the 26 adult residents of a Riverview group home, Christmas was rarely spent with family. Some of them have spent a large portion of their lives there. Some, if not most of them, had been largely forgotten by family and by society.

For the past several years, however, Barbara Jones-Keplinger hasnít forgotten them. Jones-Keplinger has been a frequent visitor of the residents of Riverview Manor. She told of Valentineís Day parties and past Christmas parties, she told of her hopes that one day she could raise enough money to paint the main building.

Jones-Keplinger is a Community Resource Officer with the Hillsborough County Sheriffís Office in Riverview. She works full-time at her job, spends months and hundreds of hours planning the annual Senior Christmas Dinner and still takes time to visit this group home on a dead end street in Riverview.

For this yearís Christmas Party, Jones-Keplinger brought along some friends from the HCSO. The party this year would have cake, dozens of presents and even a deputy dressed as Santa Claus. This year, the 26 residents of Riverview Manor were adopted by the HCSO.

"They only asked for socks and underwear," said Jones-Keplinger. She was referring to when she asked the residents what they wanted for Christmas. "No one asked for anything extravagant."

But then it is likely that no one had ever asked them before.

According to Jones-Keplinger one resident told her that there was something that he wanted but he didnít want to tell her - it would probably be too much. "He just wanted a wrist watch," she said.

On December 12, that man paused and then placed his hand on Santa Claus sitting next to him as he opened up a gift containing a wrist watch. He didnít know what to say. To describe it as a touching and emotional scene would minimize it.

Weeks before, Jones-Keplinger made up a list of gift ideas and presented them to the Communications/Operations area of the HCSO. The idea was that each person would receive about $25 in gifts.

That was the idea anyway.

The reality was that the true meaning of Christmas came through for the officers and employees of the HCSO and for the residents of Riverview Manor.

"People kept giving and giving and giving," said HCSO supervisor Diana Stephens as officers sorted dozens of gifts before the party began. In the end, it was far more than what anyone had planned, it was far beyond the hope of Jones-Keplinger.

When the cakes and treats were arranged on the tables and the presents were sorted and ready to open, Jones-Keplinger walked out to the dirt courtyard of the facility and called her husband. "It is all that I had hoped for and more," she said, her voice cracking with emotion.

For her, this was monumental. Her dedication to the people at Riverview Manor had clearly become a labor of love. Their love for her was equally clear.

Jones-Keplinger introduced me to one resident who was blind and deaf. She walked up to his wheelchair and placed her hand in his. It was obvious that he immediately recognized her. Sounds of joy came from his mouth as he placed his hand on her face. He then reached up to give her a hug.

She introduced me by placing my hand in his. He gave me a hug as well, all the time never letting go of her hand. "Pretty powerful, huh?" she asked afterwards. "Yes," I said. It was a brief and simple moment that touched clear through to my heart. His sightless eyes allowed me to see simple joy. Powerful doesnít begin to describe it.

That man has lived at Riverview Manor for most of his life. He rarely has visitors.

In the end there were so many gifts that HCSO "elves" had to help most residents carry them. But officers and employees werenít the only ones to give. Inmates at county jails were also provided the opportunity to show their Christmas spirit - although not necessarily voluntarily.

According to Wendy Stanek, Administrative Assistant to Sheriff Cal Henderson, each resident was given a headset radio courtesy of an inmate. The radios, available for sale in the jail canteens, are sometimes bartered and wind up in the hands of someone not authorized to own one. The radios are then confiscated. The HCSO typically donates the radios to the Boys and Girls Club but held 26 of them for the people who make Riverview Manor their home. The radios were a big hit.

For the men and women living at Riverview Manor, Christmas came on December 12. They were surrounded by gifts and cakes and treats. They were surrounded by people who took the time to care. In the middle of it all was Barbara Jones-Keplinger, the person who had grown to love the residents of Riverview Manor, the person they had grown to love. For her, on that day anyway, none of the residents had been forgotten.

Mental illness and physical disabilities are difficult issues for some, impossible for others. Sadly, all too often those afflictions result in a situation that can only be described as out of sight, out of mind. But not on that day.

The true meaning of Christmas came through on that day in the selfless giving by the officers and employees of the HCSO. They gave more than just presents, they gave of themselves.

Mitch Traphagen Photos

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