RUSKIN – Donna Castillo Budd knows what it’s like to be down and out. Some 30 years ago she was a newly divorced woman having a rough time raising her three children alone. It was all she could do to make ends meet.
Back then she worked for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office District IV Command as a community service officer.
One day, as Christmas drew near, a woman who was trying to make her way back to Georgia walked into the small office on Seventh Avenue and asked where she could get some help.
“She had no food, no money and no place to stay, so I referred her to the church (St. Anne Catholic) and told her to come back the next day,” Budd said, adding that when she got home that evening she told her children about the woman and began searching the cupboard for canned goods to give her. Suddenly her children – ages 5, 6 and 12 at the time – appeared, each holding one of their Christmas gifts.
From that moment on she decided to make it a personal mission to adopt a family during the holidays, often one with a single mother raising kids.
A couple of years had passed when Dist. IV Sgt. Nelson Zalva saw Budd wrapping gifts and told her he wanted to get his squad involved. That started a chain reaction, and soon the entire command had adopted the effort.
“Every major since has wanted to be involved – Larry Terry, Jerry York, John Marsicano and Ron Hartley,” Budd said.
In 2002 Deputies Darlins’ was officially born, becoming a community-wide effort to help those in need.
“This is a charity that truly comes from the heart,” said Maj. Ron Hartley, Dist. IV commander. “We’re able to see the good immediately when we give to kids who had the chance of getting absolutely nothing for Christmas. It’s probably my favorite project.”
Although assistance is offered throughout the year, Christmas is the time when the greatest need arises. Deputies and churches provide the names of struggling families with children who can’t get help from other organizations. The wrapped and tagged gifts used to be delivered to homes, but the demand grew so big parents are now asked to come to a designated site for pick-up.
Admittedly the past few years have been tough for the organization.
“We had a couple of former sponsors in Tampa who had to withdraw their support, so we ended up being short toys in 2011 and 2012,” Budd said. But the International Independent Showman’s Association came to the rescue with donations of $1,500 and $1,000 to help fulfill the needs.
Budd, who retired from the sheriff’s office in August, relies on her adult children to “pretty much run things now.” Sister members of the Krewe of Charlotte De Berry always pitch in, she said. And this year Mike Self, owner of S&S Tacos & Stuff in Riverview and Ruskin, is hosting a special event to help out on Dec. 22. For details, call (813) 677-9405.
Last year Deputies Darlins’ provided 58 families with gifts for 167 children, and a similar number is expected this year.
Budd said she’s “praying hard” that folks will come through again this year with donations, especially for kids ages 12 to 15.
“Children are innocent. They should never have to suffer,” Budd said. “Every child should have a gift under the Christmas tree.
“It’s important to show your heart, to give to others less fortunate,” she continued. “People who are down on their luck are so appreciative. I’ve seen grown men stand there and cry as they received gifts for their kids.”
If you’d like to help, bring a toy or cash donation to the following Dist. IV substations:
• Bloomingdale – 3622 Erindale Drive, Valrico, 33596
• Gibsonton – 11072 U.S. 41 S., Gibsonton, 33534
• Progress Village – 7935 Flowers St., Tampa, 33619
• Riverview – 7416 Commerce St., Riverview, 33569
• Sun City Center – 948 Cherry Hills Drive, Sun City Center, 33573
Donations may also be left at the Dist. IV command office at 508 33rd St. S.E., Ruskin.