LAND O'LAKES — Sometimes it's the simple things like Cheetos or a Chick-fil-A sandwich.
For the residents at Baldomero Lopez State Veterans' Nursing Home in Land O'Lakes, these simple pleasures can go a long way in brightening someone's day.
"Things we take for granted, they don't have access to," said Sgt. Ken Escobio of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.
That's why Escobio, along with a small group of co-workers, formed Operation Patriot.
Every year, the nonprofit organization delivers a truck full of donations for the residents as part of a special Veterans Day ceremony.
It started after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks when Sharon Richmond, a secretary at the Sheriff's Office, wanted to do something for her country. She, Escobio and a few co-workers collected donations for Christmas gifts for the veterans at Baldomero Lopez.
Through doing so, they discovered there was a need for more support for the residents.
"They only get $35 a month, that's for all their personal needs," said Richmond, who lives in Brandon and works in the Sheriff's Office's Criminal Investigations division.
In 2007, Operation Patriot became a nonprofit with the mission of providing year-round support for the facility.
"Some guys have to pay for their own haircuts, some need specialized clothing," Escobio said. "The state doesn't pay for TV programming, so we underwrite part of that."
The organization's annual Veterans Day donation drive has grown each year, with drop boxes at area sheriff's substations and Hillsborough County schools. This year, more than 30 schools are participating, collecting donations of personal care products like toothpaste, soap and shaving cream, as well as clothing, gift cards and monetary donations.
"We try to do anything that makes their life better," Richmond said. "Those are our aging heros that we forget."
Escobio said that when he organized a Chick-fil-A party at the home, one of the residents approached him, elated, and said incredulously, "This is a real Chick-fil-A sandwich, I haven't had one of these in six years,"
At another event, Cheetos were a huge hit.
"It's nice to do some things for folks who've done their time and are on their last stage in life. It's a good feeling to help someone like that," he said.
Escobio recently received the Sertoma regional Service to Mankind Award for his work with Operation Patriot. Currently assigned to District 3 Patrol, he has been with the Sheriff's Office since 1980 and plans to retire in January. But he will continue with Operation Patriot, which receives no funding or administrative support from the Sheriff's Office.
Volunteers, including founding members Escobio, Richmond, Deputy Rob Thornton and Deputy Bobby Howard, do everything from collecting and sorting donations to organizing fundraisers. The group has outfitted the facility with new computers, recliners for visiting family members, flat panel televisions and even a Wii gaming system.
"(The residents) love it. They bowl, play baseball," said Richmond of the Wii. "It stimulates their minds and gets them physically active. Even in a wheelchair, they can do that."
Operation Patriot also helps facilitate a special part of the home's Veterans Day ceremony, in which veterans receive medals they have earned.
Sometimes, veterans don't receive their medals while serving.
"If they've been wounded, shipped out, discharged … it's just something that happens," said Richmond. Operation Patriot works with the families to get the medals ordered through MacDill Air Force Base, and presents them at the Veterans Day ceremony.
For Christmas, Richmond will personally shop for presents for more than 100 residents. Operation Patriot organizes a Christmas party and other events for the residents throughout the year.
"Anything we can do to make their lives more comfortable, more fulfilled," Escobio said.
Elizabeth Miller can be reached at [email protected]