Juan cannot see, hear or speak. But he knew when Barbara Jones was approaching. And then when he would feel her hand in his, the sounds coming from him were unmistakable in pure joy. There are so many distractions in every day life that pure joy in these times can easily be diluted or diminished. But not so for Juan. He loved Barbara. Knowing she was there with him meant the world to him.
Every single one of the easily ten thousand or more people whose lives have been touched by Barbara Jones over the years has been special to her. But Juan was extra special.
For the past 19 years, Jones, the Community Service Officer at the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Riverview Substation, has taken on the monumental responsibility of organizing the annual senior dinner. Jones and an army of volunteers from South Hillsborough businesses, both large and small, and numerous colleagues from the HCSO, made Christmas happen for many thousands of seniors and homeless veterans, who may have otherwise spent the holidays alone. She had no real budget; she often had to scramble at the last minute to make sure there was enough food and small gifts for the 700 or so who would attend each year and, at the end, she would have blisters on her feet and muscles so sore as to make walking a challenge. Planning the dinner was a months-long project, with so many details as to boggle the mind.
But she refuses to take credit. Instead, she expresses gratitude.
“I would like to say… everyone that attended and shared with me what it meant… because the true meaning of Christmas is not what you get, that’s nice and all, the true meaning of Christmas is what you can share, what you can give,” Jones said. “A lot has been given to me, God has been good to me. So for Christmas, I want to thank them. They all made my Christmas. I got so much more than the seniors will ever know.”
And this year was her last. Jones is stepping down from her role in organizing the dinner. But the dinner will go on.
“A committee will decide who is responsible for all of the different aspects going forward,” she said. “I’m just glad that it’s going to continue. That was my biggest fear, that it wouldn’t continue.”
For many seniors, losing the dinner would have been devastating. It is a Christmas miracle. It is an occasion and a time that so many looked forward to, and looked back upon with happiness and even tears of joy.
Jones said it best in describing it as a labor of love, both for her and for everyone who pitched in to make it happen. She spoke with admiration of the volunteers but said little about the hard work she had put in. But the emotion in her voice in describing what it all meant to her was clear.
“To see the Alzheimer’s patients in there, to see the joy on their faces, when you know what their lives are like…,” she said as her voice faltered. “One thing I take away from this is, there but for the Grace of God go I.”
Each year, calls and letters pour in after the dinner with words of emotion and gratitude. She shares those words with those who volunteered and those who gave to make it possible.
One year, a man checked himself out of the hospital after bypass surgery to attend the dinner, telling his doctor he’d be back afterward.
Another woman came to the dinner from hospice. She passed away eight days later. The woman’s daughter told Barbara that her mother spent her last eight days talking happily about the dinner and how much it meant to her.
It made the last days of that woman’s life special. How can anything be greater than that? That is a true impact on a life for the better. And for that, Jones is only thankful.
“I just want to thank people for allowing me the pleasure of doing this,” she said quietly.
She also wanted to thank her husband. “Without his support, this would have been very difficult. He needs a lot of thanking,” she said.
But the senior dinner, while the largest and most visible of her projects, was far from the only one. Years ago, at a place called Riverview Manor, a nursing home that had long suffered from ill repair, located at the end of a Riverview alleyway, Jones was there to ensure the seniors there were never forgotten.
That’s where Juan was living. His could well have been a life of extreme isolation but it wasn’t. The residents there banded together. And Jones was there. Wherever people needed a helping hand, Jones seemed omnipresent.
Riverview Manor closed, and the small family of seniors was separated from each other, something that tore into Jones’ heart. But, as things often do, eventually the seniors settled in and their lives improved. Despite not being able to see or hear, Juan now plays music. Jones can only imagine that he feels the vibrations of the instruments.
“I noticed it the first time at Riverview Manor and we were all singing and he started rocking,” she said. “When we stopped singing, he got a little agitated and he wanted more. It has to be the vibration. We kept singing.”
Even after the passing of years, she has stayed in touch; she knows the details and how they are doing. Barbara Jones is Christmas…and she is so all year-round. There is never a month, never a moment, when she isn’t there to help when help is needed.
When it comes to heart, compassion and a willingness to work fingers to the bone and developing blisters on her feet for those in need, no one could possibly replace Barbara Jones — when it comes to the senior dinner or any of the many tasks she takes on to help others, many of which it is likely that few people ever know about, she is irreplaceable. She doesn’t talk about what she does. She talks about her gratitude.
Gratitude is something that others could talk about, too. Even without speaking, Juan’s gratitude towards her was obvious and beyond words. Just seeing him with Barbara could melt the coldest heart. There are likely to be thousands more such stories.
“The community really picked up this year,” she said. “Without hesitation, people were there for this,” she later said. “This isn’t me, this is all of us. This is the seniors, the community and businesses and the sheriff’s office.”
And for nearly two decades, it has been Barbara Jones, always there for those in need.
At the end of the interview, when wished a “Merry Christmas,” Jones replied, “I already have.
“I am truly blessed,” she repeated. “I’ve been allowed to do this.”