DADE CITY — Aida Gamez could not keep from crying as she picked up the box of food that assured her family a Christmas dinner.
Times are tough. Gamez recently took on care of her three grandchildren, ranging in age from 18 months to 4 years old, but the Dade City owner of Aida's Hair Boutique said a down economy has cut her business in half.
"It means a lot," Gamez said of the food provided Tuesday through the Pasco County Sheriff's Office holiday food program. "It's really been tough. I have always been too proud to ask for help, but with these kids I have to."
Gamez and more than 1,000 other Pasco families are receiving help and hope this week through the Sheriff's Office, which collected 41,000 food items through a yearlong food drive to brighten the holidays for residents in need.
On Tuesday, sheriff's officials set up at John S. Burks Memorial Park in Dade City to deliver about 600 boxes of food filled with all the makings for a Christmas dinner, as well as a gift card to purchase a turkey or ham.
"People are in need right now more than ever. You just can't put a price on hope," said Cpl. Alan Wilkett.
Hundreds of cars, trucks and sport utility vehicles pulled up carrying residents of all ages in need, from young mothers to the elderly. The recipients had all been preselected, based on need.
And by the time the remaining 400 or so boxes are delivered this morning at sheriff's headquarters in New Port Richey, officials estimate the bounty will feed 10,000 people. The Sheriff's Office has also given out hundreds of bags of baby food and formula to families with small children.
The Sheriff's Office has been doing the food drive for several years, but this year's effort set a new standard. Officials set the goal of donating 1,000 boxes of food this year — twice the size of last year's effort.
"The economy is definitely a factor. People just need a helping hand right now," said Capt. Chris Nocco. "And it also provides an interaction with the Sheriff's Office that many of these citizens don't see."
The bulk of the donated food comes through drives for canned goods and other items throughout the year by Pasco school resource officers. Then as Christmas nears, it takes a staff of 350 volunteers to load the boxes.
"To me, that's what makes this so special," said Wilkett. "This food is donated to us from the community, people volunteer their time to help, and we give the food right back to those in need."
Officials will end up with a surplus.
The extra food will be donated to the Sunrise of Pasco County domestic violence shelter, the Angelus home for the developmentally disabled and the Salvation Army.
"We see the need at places like Sunrise every day while doing our jobs, so we are so happy to be donating to these organizations," Nocco said.