Pinellas County deputies Chris Mantzanas and Don Klase ordinarily spend their mornings on patrol. But about 7 a.m. Thursday, the deputies were working on a different assignment: deciphering exactly what a "Bakugon Battle Brawler" is, and which one of the toys would make the best Christmas present for an 8-year-old. "I don't have kids," Mantzanas said. "That's why you don't know what a Bakugon is," Klase replied. As the two pushed a shopping cart down the action figure aisle of the Walmart Supercenter on Tampa Road, the gun-toting deputies may have seemed slightly out of place. But their shopping spree may make a big difference for one of many Pinellas families struggling through the holidays. With money generated from the department's annual "Run With the Stars" fundraiser, the deputies, along with about 100 other Sheriff's Office personnel, spent $25,000
in two hours at the Wal-Mart, buying Christmas gifts for 500 children in their communities.
"We're shopping for folks going through tough times," said sheriff's Capt. Teri Dioquino. "Many have been a victim of a crime."
But this year, because of the recession, there were more needy families than last year, and about $20,000 less to go around.
Some event sponsors, like the surge protector company Ditek, have chipped in a few thousand. But the total still comes up short of the $44,000 raised last year.
The fundraising dearth made deciding which families to help difficult.
Parents selected by Sheriff's Office personnel in their communities sent in wish lists for their children. Some items on the Christmas lists included items like new furniture or televisions. Those were tossed out. Other requests spoke to the urgent need facing many families stung by job losses or other tragedies.
"We have one little girl, both her parents are deceased. All she wanted was a toothbrush, toothpaste and deodorant," Dioquino said.
Hopefully, her surrogate Santa at the Sheriff's Office will be able to do better than that.
Deputies Mantzanas and Klase, with about $65 to spend, certainly tried their best. They eventually figured out just what the 8-year-old, Zackary, wanted.
One of the Japanese Bakugon card game toys fell into their basket.
Though they would encounter another problem.
"Does he need a board to go with it?" Mantzanas said.
"I think if he likes the toys, he already has one, right?" Klase asked.
The two decided they had enough with the toy department. They moved on to get Zackary the next item on his wish list: "baseball stuff." That one would be easier than Bakugon.
"We'll get him a bat," Mantzanas said, "or something like that."