Santa in a firefighter's outfit
Lt. Ralph Velez gives unstintingly of his time and energy to Zephyrhills. The Christmas toy drive is a passion.
By JAMAL THALJI, Times Staff Writer
Published April 11, 2005

ZEPHYRHILLS - Summertime is Ralph Velez's time.

Because the 15-year Zephyrhills Fire Department veteran is slammed the rest of the year.

In the fall he judges senior projects at Zephyrhills High School. In the winter it's helping Project Starfish give food and clothes to the homeless. For the holidays he runs the department's massive Christmas toy drive for needy children at four schools.

Then there's the year-round stuff. Like hosting bimonthly children's birthday parties, mentoring kids interested in firefighting or helping art students find inspiration at the city's fire stations.

He's also a husband, father of two teens and a student, too, always in a firefighting class or two.

Don't forget his real job. He's a lieutenant.

"I was raised in a single-parent household," he said. "I didn't want for anything, but I know what it's like to struggle.

"I figured if I ever had the avenue ... I would be doing myself a disservice if I didn't take advantage of the opportunity to help people out."

The 2004 Zephyrhills firefighter of the year has certainly done that.

* * *

Lt. Velez has been selected as Zephyrhills Fire Department's Firefighter of the Year 2004 for his dedicated service within our community.

It's the first line in the letter written by Assistant Chief Ray Guynn to nominate Velez for the honor, and it pretty much explains it all. The department voted Velez, 40, the honor. Fire Chief Robert Hartwig gave him the award at the Feb. 28 council meeting.

"He's a good guy," Guynn said, "and when he sets his mind to do a project, he sticks with it."

Born in Hollywood, Fla., Velez's family moved to Pasco County when he was in the second grade. He graduated from Zephyrhills High in 1982, did some odd jobs and spent some time at Pasco-Hernando Community College. In 1985 he married his wife, Beth.

Remembering a childhood friend who became a firefighter, Velez decided it was time for him to try it, too.

In 1990 he was a Zephyrhills volunteer, went to fire school and then became a full-time firefighter in 1991.

He became a driver in 2003, a lieutenant in 2004, and has been taking firefighting classes ever since. He hopes to enroll at the University of Florida soon.

Velez said he's always been active and involved, especially as a longtime youth coach in a number of sports. "I've always been involved in the community," he said. "I love that kind of thing."

Son Kyle is 19 now and at Pasco-Hernando Community College, planning to be a firefighter, too. Daughter Kayla, 18, is a senior at dad's alma mater.

"My kids were getting older, ready to get out and do their own things," their father said. "I needed something else to keep my time occupied."

* * *

It was in his time working with Little Leagues, youth organizations and parents that Velez learned how to organize, to raise funds , to get things done.

"It seemed like in all those different organizations somehow I was always in charge of fundraising," he said. "I have no trouble talking with people, and I think that's the best way to say it. I can communicate with people on a level, and I've gotten a pretty decent reputation in the town, I think."

Velez's year is organized around his projects. Each season, time is set aside for something. Except the summers. That's his time.

But there is one event that his entire year is designed around, to ensure he has enough time to pull together what has become his signature charity:

The toy drive.

He starts in August, preparing for that special December day, getting sponsorships, assembling wish lists from local schools, coordinating with other charities, finding donors and businesses willing to help, and pulling it all together.

The first year Velez ran it in 1999, the Fire Department helped 26 families.

In 2004, it was 150. And he had so many toys after the kids left that he called their parents and had them come back the next day to pick up another bag.

Velez makes sure the department's toy day doesn't conflict with other charities' giveaways, and even gives other charities their leftovers. Before, it was the department that got stuck with leftover toys.

"What happened is that people kept dropping stuff off," Velez said. "Toys for Tots would give their stuff out and we'd still be getting toys in. We had no charity willing to take them because they had already given out their toys.

"It was a week and a half before Christmas and I still had a room full of toys ready to be taken. So I started doing it myself."

But he had help. Once, while putting up fliers, Velez was given $500. Another person donated 10-20 bicycles, then went to buy helmets. There are discounts from the Zephyrhills Wal-Mart Supercenter, too.

"People just come right off the street and drop stuff off," Velez said, "and some drive up in ratty cars and you think they're here to get and instead they're here to donate."

The school system helps the firefighters verify who's needy, and what they want.

"I'll tell you, he took on a load when he got into the Christmas project," Guynn said.

"You just need to be around here around Christmas time and see the amount of work that goes into it.

"But I think he finds it very rewarding since these kids probably wouldn't get anything if it wasn't for him."

[Last modified April 11, 2005, 01:18:07]