Cristina Gabriel got birthday presents for her 24th birthday this month – many from people she never met.
The gifts started arriving several weeks before the actual date of Oct. 13. And by the day after her birthday, she had given them all away.
Gabriel didn’t want anything for herself, and instead opted to start a drive for Halloween candy for U.S. troops deployed oversees.
By the time her birthday arrived, it had expanded to personal care items, ramen noodles, powdered drink mixes, sunflower seeds and lots of letters of support, many from school children. The donations filled box after box and were shipped to 130 service personnel in the Air Force, Coast Guard and Army.
“If I told 10 people about it, then those 10 people told 10 more, and those told 10 more,” said Gabriel, who works for a government contracting company in South Tampa, but is going into the Air Force in about a month.
Soon she was contacted by people across the Tampa Bay area about picking up a box of donations or having one delivered to her. She started getting shipments from South Florida and Puerto Rico, where she grew up. After so many people were interested, she expanded the list from just candy.
Gabriel, who had military friends when growing up, said military families “inspire me.”
“We are going to the mall, having fun – and they are out there deployed and protecting our freedom,” she said.
A member of running and fitness groups, Gabriel reached out to them to help spread the word about her project. They sent emails to others and posted the information on their Facebook pages.
In early October, she set up collection boxes at a meetup run with Team RWB and the Irish 31 running groups.
Team RWB is a nonprofit organization connecting veterans with the community through athletic activities. Blayne Smith, a veteran, is the executive director.
“When you are deployed and get something like this, you know people really care,” Smith said.
Bob Rose stopped by the collection boxes to drop off items.
“I’ve got a son in the military,” he said. “ Any gesture like this at all is good.”