By MITCH TRAPHAGEN
For uncounted millions of people on earth, the Christmas season is a time for joy. It is a time for selflessness, togetherness, and to reconnect both with that which is most important in life and with those we love.
But for many others, Christmas can be a time of loneliness. Too many seniors, homeless veterans, and others in our own communities and around this nation face the prospect of the days of cheer and goodwill instead being days of silence and isolation. Seniors are among our most vulnerable and cherished population; but somehow they can be overlooked during the holidays. It is a busy time for many of us.
For the past 20 years, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, spearheaded by now-retired Riverview community service officer Barbara Jones, along with dozens of volunteers and numerous area businesses, have created a Christmas miracle for many thousands of seniors and veterans. It is no small task. They have collectively brought seniors together, who may otherwise be alone, to enjoy the Christmas spirit. For the seniors, it is a dinner that lasts for one evening each year, but the good cheer and warm feelings that result from it carry on for much longer.
Over the years, Jones has consistently received notes and calls with sincere thanks in the days and weeks after the event. Some are tear-stained, with children telling of just how much their parents had enjoyed their last Christmas with so many others and feeling loved.
Yet for many families, preparing dinner for family and guests on any holiday can be a stressful event. The senior dinner is all that times infinity — each year up to (often more than) 700 seniors show up for dinner, entertainment, time to connect with others during the most joyous season of the year and to receive a small gift. Organizers are planning for 650 seniors this year but, as in years past, it is likely that more will show up than are planned for. It’s hard to turn anyone away at Christmastime.
In a letter to the community from HCSO Community Resource Deputy Clifford Fletcher, he thanked the community for two decades of support in hosting the annual Christmas dinner, which is a regional event drawing seniors from all communities in South Hillsborough, many from nursing homes and assisted living facilities. In addition, he pointed to one of the goals of providing care for those suffering from Alzheimer’s, which in turn provides a respite for caregivers.
“There are many seniors in our area without family members to assist in their financial and emotional needs. It [Christmas] can be a difficult time to be alone,” Deputy Fletcher wrote. “Each year we ask our local merchants and community members to donate items for this
event. We are seeking pens, pencils, magnets, key chains or any item your establishment may use as handouts. These items are put into goodie bags, along with a gift for each senior. We understand 650 items may be too much for you to donate, so we are asking, please donate what you can.”
A list of all of the items needed accompanies this article.
The annual dinner is the embodiment of the very spirit of Christmas. It will be held from 5 to 8 p.m. on Dec. 8 at the International Showmen’s Club, 6915 Riverview Drive in Riverview. The theme for this year’s event will be “An Italian Christmas.”
Last year, 728 seniors experienced the magic of Christmas at the dinner. Deputy Fletcher also mentioned that volunteers to help make it all happen would be welcome.
“I only hope that ‘we’ as a community have brightened the holidays for our seniors and that those who helped to make it happen receive as much, if not more, than the seniors that [who] attend,” Jones said. “I know that I have.”
Jones has dedicated much of her life to helping others, particularly the most vulnerable among us — in stories told and untold at Christmastime and anytime. She is among those living the spirit of Christmas; she is an example of “give and you shall receive.” With less than a month left before the annual dinner, Christmas for her and all of the volunteers is fast approaching. Please do what you can to help — let your heart be light and, like hundreds of seniors being welcomed with joy and happiness, there is little doubt that it will make your Merry Little Christmas larger, happier and brighter.
For additional information on how you can help, contact Deputy Clifford Fletcher at 813-672-7822.
Items needed as of Nov. 7. Please contact HCSO Deputy Clifford Fletcher at 813-672-7822 for the most current needs.
20 long red tablecloths
30 round green tablecloths
30 round red tablecloths
30 round white tablecloths
Red and green Christmas decorations for tree
8 to 10 rolls of paper towels
800 white paper plates (call for brand and where to purchase)
800 sets of plastic silverware (silver, from Costco or Sam’s)
1,000 large white napkins
800 small paper / Styrofoam bowls
1,000 quart-size zip lock bags
15 – 15 pack of large aluminum pans (Sam’s, Costco, Restaurant Depot)
50 cases of bottled water (24 pack)
4 cases of Sterno (Sam’s, Costco, Restaurant Depot)
4 aluminum foil rolls (large rolls at Sam’s or Costco)
2 large coffee pots (35-60 cup size)
Gifts (socks, candles, towels, anything you might get an older person in your life)
1,000 8-ounce Styrofoam cups
Items for homeless veteran backpacks (soap, manual can openers, decks of cards, socks)
Salt and pepper individual packets (Sam’s, Costco)
Sugar and sweetener individual packets (Equal, Sweet’N Low)
Coffee creamer individual packets
Large serving trays (which will hold 3 to 4 dinner plates)
Items for goodie bags (pens, pencils, magnets, notepads, calendars (advertise your business)
Lunch and drinks for the 40 volunteers
6 large coffee cans (decaf or regular); must be large cans
30 gallons of spaghetti sauce (Sam’s has large Prego 2-packs, 67 ounces each – will need at least 30 of the 2-packs)
1,500 1-ounce meatballs (storage is available to keep frozen meatballs). Please contact for wholesalers if needed
5 grated Parmesan cheese 4.5 pounds (Sam’s)
4 large Italian seasonings (Sam’s or Costco)
1,500 individual butter packets
65 – 1-pound packages spaghetti
30 large bottles of Italian dressing for salads
800 dinner rolls (must be purchased the week of event)
50 large bags of salad mix from Sam’s or Costco (must be purchased the week of event)