Observations: Merry Christmas. And thank you.

Published on: December 23, 2015


A young girl waves to Santa after an HCSO sponsored Christmas party in Wimauma. Mitch Traphagen photo.

A young girl waves to Santa after an HCSO sponsored Christmas party in Wimauma. Mitch Traphagen photo.

For nearly as long as I’ve been sharing the stories of South Hillsborough and beyond in the pages of this wonderful newspaper, I’ve known Barbara Jones, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Community Service Officer at the Riverview substation.

I’m pretty sure that I met her while she was trying to help someone else. I remember so many things over the years: One senior needed a wheelchair but couldn’t afford one. Supplies were needed for this or for that. One time she poured her heart into trying to save an entire nursing home. To me, Barbara Jones is nothing short of an angel. My feature this week is about her — something that she won’t much care for because she refuses to take any credit for her uncountable good works. But I can tell you this with honesty: Writing a news story, even a feature, simply does not allow me to convey the respect, love and admiration I have for this woman. I don’t even have the words to convey all of that.

Barbara has had such a positive impact on so many thousands of people, I wouldn’t know where to begin to describe it all with how it all feels in my heart. She never once asked anything for herself, it was always for someone else. Even for that, she would refuse to take any credit for helping.

And in researching the article, I went through hundreds if not thousands of photos I’ve shot that date back nearly 15 years and, often, the photos I found included other things that officers from the HCSO were doing in the community. I spent hours looking through those photos, marveling anew at just how amazing the people are at the HCSO District IV office, which covers South Hillsborough.

They say there are bad apples in every bunch, but if that is true, I never met one at HCSO D-IV. I have only met men and women who go far above and beyond in keeping the pledge, “To Protect and Serve.” The brass, staff and deputies at D-IV take it to heart. They go to work willing to put their lives down for all of us; they spend their off-duty hours serving us. My respect for them is beyond description.

Now-retired Major Ron Hartley is one of the smartest, most likeable and most competent men I know. He has the rare and innate ability to speak to people on their personal level, without ever talking down to anyone. He says things like they are, without B.S., and whether that is good news or bad, you walk away feeling better, knowing that you’ve been speaking with an honest and caring man.

He also makes one heck of a good Santa Claus. I have photos to prove it.

He carried on from his predecessor, Major Jerry York, who made it clear to his entire staff that serving — yes, volunteering service — would be a big part of the job for anyone interested in working at District IV. And still, there is and long has been a very long line of officers looking to come to District IV.

Christmas isn’t by any means the only time when the “To Serve” part of the HCSO turns out, but it is the most visible. In my archive of photos, I saw hundreds of children smiling while deputies and senior staff volunteered their time to make the season so much brighter for children from struggling families. I don’t think many of us can imagine how much it means to parents who were faced with buying food or buying gifts, with sometimes even the former alone being a stretch.

There was Deputies Darlins’, founded by former HCSO Community Service Officer Donna Budd. There were parties, and there was so much more. They served; they gave of themselves long after their duty time had finished, long after their days and nights had been spent willing to give their lives for ours in the “To Protect” half of that equation.

Just imagine the impact. Some of the kids in my photos are adults now, and I have to believe that what the HCSO did is something that many still carry in their hearts. How could they not?

And then I looked further in my archives and saw so many others in South Hillsborough coming together and giving to others in need. Few would ever meet those who would experience joy from their generosity, but that didn’t stop the bicycles and other gifts from appearing under otherwise empty Christmas trees.

The personal and business finance website had recently completed a survey of the most caring cities in America. Out of the 100 largest cities, Tampa did not fare well, coming in at 71. But I can’t imagine that there is any way that the well-respected site could possibly have tallied up the sheer amount of generosity and caring of people like Jones and Budd, the HCSO, the Mary & Martha House and so many others who give quietly and altruistically, without any expectation in return.

People here do care, in great numbers and with true feeling. They simply don’t advertise it. I’ve written stories about families that need help, and the community has never failed to provide that help. I rarely know who steps up. There is a tremendous heart here but it is more easily seen and felt than counted on metrics for a survey.

And for all of that, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. It has been an honor living among you. It has been an honor to call you neighbors. I wish you all a Merry Christmas, happy holidays and the very best possible New Year.