RIVERVIEW — Barbara Jones says her life as a retiree won't look much different than the 23 years she spent working as a community service officer for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office — except for the ability to sleep in some mornings if desired.
Sure, she plans to do some traveling, take a cruise and tend the garden she never had time to nurture while working.
However, Jones, 64, said while she leaves her job this week, she doesn't intend to retire from the tireless community service work that has become her trademark.
"I'm retiring from work, not the community," she said. "Riverview is the greatest place to live and I've been blessed to be able to give back to this community. That won't change."
Best known for organizing an annual holiday party for senior citizens — including doing most of the cooking for the 600-plus attendees — Jones was hired as a community service officer during the early years of the Sheriff's Office's community policing program in 1993.
"I was manager of a 7-Eleven at 50th Street and Sligh Avenue in Tampa," she said. "It was a high-crime area, so sheriff's deputies came into the store all the time, and I got to know them very well."
Among them was Deputy Sankar Montoute, now a major with the sheriff's office Homeland Security Division.
"He came into the store one day and asked me if I knew anyone who might be interested in applying for a sheriff's job as a community service officer," Jones said.
Community-oriented policing, a strategy that focuses on working closely with community members, was still in its infancy.
"I was the first deputy charged with recruiting people for the program," Montoute said. "I immediately thought of Barbara. She always had such a positive attitude, was so good at relating to people and had so much concern for the community. She seemed perfect for the job."
Jones was eager for a new challenge and jumped at the opportunity to assist the Sheriff's Office.
After two years, Jones was transferred to the Riverview Community Station and promptly relocated to the community she has since called home.
Her first focus was senior citizens. "Seniors who are alone have always tugged at my heart, especially during the holidays," she said. "So many people focus on the kids during that time of year, and the elderly are overlooked."
So Jones hosted her first holiday party for senior citizens 20 years ago. A former sous chef, Jones did much of the cooking for the parties herself.
Pulled pork, barbecue turkey, sausage and various vegetable dishes rounded out the meal, which included a visit from Santa Claus doling out gifts donated by local businesses.
Jones invariably cajoles sheriff's personnel into helping her serve food and bus tables.
"She was such a hard worker and so willing to give back, it inspired others to get involved," Maj. Robert Bullara said.
While the annual Christmas party became more popular over the years , Jones' involvement in other community projects wasn't as well known.
The week after Christmas when the holiday spirit wanes, Jones provides food baskets for residents in need, many referred to her by sheriff's deputies. Last year she gave out 58 food baskets.
She also organized the first Riverview Trick or Treat Street, a safe alternative to traditional trick or treating in 1988.
Now hosted by the Greater Riverview Chamber of Commerce, Trick or Treat Street attracts 10,000 kids.
A three-time cancer survivor, Jones also is active in the annual American Cancer Society Relay for Life at Riverview High School.
Ever humble, Jones downplays her contributions and is quick to give credit to others.
"Whatever I give, I get back tenfold," she said. "I'm just blessed that the community allows me to do this."
She said she wouldn't have been able to accomplish so much without the help of her husband of 17 years, David Keplinger.
This year Jones will attend the holiday party for seniors as a guest for the first time. She has entrusted a volunteer committee to organize the event, and plans to play a minor role in the event.
"I just hope it continues," she said. "To me, there's nothing better than to do something so well people want it to live on."
Contact D'Ann White at [email protected].