PORT RICHEY — Nicole Dunn walked across the vast parking lot behind the Gulf View Square mall where two delivery trucks stood end-to-end and sheriff's deputies and volunteers lugged cardboard boxes.
"I'm supposed to come up and see you guys," she said to Capt. James Mallo of the Pasco County Sheriff's Office.
He told her yes and handed her one of the boxes. He told her to have a merry Christmas.
The box, originally meant for bananas, held canned vegetables, Spam, bread and a crinkling bag of cheesy puffs.
It wasn't much. Volunteers said it was made to feed a family of four once, maybe twice. But to Dunn, it was a reprieve. She'd be getting her first paycheck from her new job at Subway on Friday, but that would all go to bills. The box meant she could save up the food stamps she spends on her three children. It means she'll be able to give them a Christmas dinner.
Resource officers at middle and high schools around the county set up donation boxes this month to collect food donations for Thursday's Sheriff's Office food drive.
With the school donations, private donations and donations from the Sheriff's Office, said sheriff's Sgt. Jason Marques, volunteers put together about 1,200 boxes like Dunn's.
"School resource officers know which families are in need" and handed out applications to receive food, Marques said. Online applications were also available on the Sheriff's Office website.
Marques said the drive didn't bring in as much food this year. Usually, after reaching the 1,000 box goal, the Sheriff's Office donates leftover food to soup kitchens, the Volunteer Way, Salvation Army and Sunrise domestic violence shelter.
This year, he said, they would have only enough to fill the boxes. He blames a tight economy.
On Thursday, delivery trucks made stops in Dade City, Zephyrhills, Land O'Lakes and Port Richey where needy families could pick up the boxes.
That afternoon, in the parking lot behind the mall, two steady streams of cars pulled up beside the trucks.
Deputies, volunteers and two Land O'Lakes jail inmates piled the boxes into cars and wished drivers a merry Christmas as they drove away with their food.
Inmate Tommy Clegg, 45, stood in the back of one of the trucks and pushed the boxes to where volunteers could reach them. He had 19 more days to go on his 90-day sentence after a DUI charge May 19. He said he was glad to help.
"Now I'm a better person," he said, taking a break from lifting boxes. "There are people who end up here and actually need this stuff."
Nicole Dunn's manager at Subway in the mall's food court let her come into work an hour late so she would have time to pick up her food.
Dunn said she was working at Villa Pizza in the same food court until she was let go last month. Her boyfriend made money detailing cars to get them through.
Dunn, 30, said another charity will have gifts for her children, who are 5, 6 and 8. They've been asking her about a ham for Christmas dinner. Because of the box she picked up Thursday, she said, she'll be able to give them one.
Dunn is "grateful that people care enough to help us out for the holidays," she said. "Now, I'll be able to have somewhat of a Christmas this year."
Alex Orlando can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.