BROOKSVILLE — This time last year, Tiffany Reynolds woke up in the cab of an 18-wheeler parked at a truck stop somewhere along Interstate 10 in New Mexico.
The rig that had taken her to 48 states, Canada and Mexico had plenty of creature comforts: TV, DVD player, microwave.
But no Christmas tree. No gifts. And no family.
Reynolds, 27, lost her job hauling orange juice and produce a few months later after five years under circumstances she'd rather not talk about. That started a journey that brought her to Brooksville, to this Christmas Day, when she'll wake up among new friends — she calls them family — at Mary's House, Jericho Road Ministry's shelter for women.
"To be very frank and honest, it is the hardest and most worthwhile struggle of my life," she said.
• • •
This time last year, Jack Tocco woke up at a drug detox facility in Tampa.
The New Port Richey resident been laid off a few months earlier from his job doing electrical work. He started collecting unemployment. The more frustrated he got in his search for a new job, the easier he found it to hang with old friends and continue popping pills.
His family drove him to the detox center on Christmas Eve.
"We didn't talk the whole way," Tocco, now 22, recalls. "Both of them started crying. It was tough. It was really tough."
He would get out and relapse, prompting his family to threaten to cut him off if he didn't check into another program and make it work this time. Tough love, they said.
Tocco made it through a treatment program and a halfway house. Today, he'll wake up among friends — he calls them family — at Jericho Road's men's shelter in Brooksville.
"Now I believe I've been saved as a Christian," he said.
• • •
Reynolds, a native of tiny Ahoskie, N.C., was living in Winter Haven when she lost her job.
She thought about heading back to her family. Her mother died when Reynolds was a teen, but her dad, the one who taught her how to drive a rig at the age of 13, still lived in the Tarheel State.
But she chose another road.
"I would much rather just make my own way," she said. "It's much more rewarding when you come through struggles, just you and God."
An acquaintance lived in this area and Reynolds found Jericho Road on the Internet. The faith-based ministry offers an 11-month residential program to men and women, some battling drug or alcohol addiction, to give them stability as they find a job and work toward independence.
Reynolds didn't have a drug problem, but she is undergoing a transformation. Living in a house with five other women is much different than the solitarily life crisscrossing the country in her steel home on wheels.
"I was so used to being secluded. I could deal with people when I chose to," she said. "Now I have to come out of that box."
Reynolds is working at Jericho's thrift stores, sorting through the toys and housewares and slapping on price tags. She is in the first phase of the program now, looking for a part-time job. Clients usually graduate about three months after landing full-time work.
But the bond between her and the housemates is already cemented.
"I don't think I've made friends," she said. "The girls are my sisters."
• • •
After Tocco got out of rehab for the second time, he wasn't sure he wanted to head to Jericho. But he had no money, and he needed to show his family he was ready to make a change.
He's now one of 12 men in the Jericho's men's shelter off Mondon Hill Road — a full house, with six men per room. He just celebrated six months clean.
"It's tough, but it's good," he said. "I feel like I've been looking for this all my life."
Tocco spends five days a week working in Jericho's food bank, taking in food, organizing the shelves, watching them go from empty to full and feeling good about that.
"It's a wonderful thing to watch something grow," he said.
Tocco had a job interview with a Spring Hill nursing home. A full-time gig in the kitchen. The bottom rung, sure, but it just might be the perfect starting point for a man considering culinary school.
Tocco says his parents visit him regularly, and his relationship with his three sisters is the best it has been in a long time.
"They're seeing I'm actually starting to help myself and want to do good in life and not be a moocher, not just some guy looking for the next high," he said. "They're glad to have their brother back."
• • •
Thursday, Reynolds and Tocco were among 50 volunteers for Jericho's annual Christmas Eve luncheon for the needy at First United Methodist Church in downtown Brooksville.
Local churches, businesses and clubs come together to feed hundreds of people and provide toys to help make Christmas for dozens of children. Jericho clients are part of the day's workforce.
Reynolds greeted diners with her high-wattage smile. Tocco, whose goatee belies a baby face, donned a blue tie and handed out food and loaded up toys.
As chatter and laughter bounced off the church's soaring ceiling, Jericho's pastor, Bruce Gimbel, watched his two charges and explained the secret of their success to this point.
"They're sincere," he said. "If clients aren't sincere about changing their lives, they won't realize that change."
Before the church hall filled up Thursday, Tocco told a reporter to be sure to mention she's thankful for Jericho. She hopes to go back to finish college and become a counselor for women in need.
Women like her.
"If you've been there, it's that much easier to help," she said.
As people filed in for dinner, Tocco marveled at the difference a year can make.
"This is the first Christmas I've been able to have with the Lord and know what Christmas is all about," he said. "It's not about getting gifts. It's about giving and helping others."
Tony Marrero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1431.