For Toni Dukes, love isn't delivered with a sugary sweet Hallmark card or an overpriced bouquet of red roses. It's given in a Ziploc bag stuffed with a hat, gloves and a packet of Kleenex, and the words "From the Heart" written in black marker on the outside.
The 39-year-old single mom commutes to San Francisco from her home in Stockton to work the swing shift as a 911 dispatcher. Her days are spent driving 187 miles round trip to work in an understaffed department where she handles calls ranging from mentally ill people screaming at her to women going into labor alone to somebody who's just found their mother dead.
But Dukes hasn't been able to call it a day after her high-stress shifts. Her route to work takes her through the Tenderloin, and last year, she couldn't help but notice the homeless people and others down on their luck who were huddling outside in the cold.
So, using her own pocket money, she began venturing into the rough neighborhood on foot a few times a month to hand out the packets and to chat with people on the street - many of whom seemed more grateful for the conversation than the hats and gloves.
"My job is over the phone. I like to meet and greet. I like to talk to people face to face," she said. "It's amazing just for people to smile, to acknowledge them and show you know that they're there. They're not animals. They're just people without the same opportunities a lot of us have."
Dukes will be honored Thursday at the San Francisco General Hospital Foundation's Hearts and Heroes luncheon to publicize the latest round of those big painted hearts that will adorn Union Square and Yerba Buena Gardens for the next several months.
Since the art installation project was started four years ago, close to $3 million has been raised for the hospital by auctioning off the hearts and holding the annual Valentine's Day lunch.
Dukes' labor of love is a much smaller undertaking; she spends her own money and money pitched in by her fellow 911 dispatchers to buy hats and gloves from the Dollar Store or Wal-Mart. She packs them up in the Ziploc bags herself and takes bundles of them out on the streets, asking people for their size and favorite color. She's given out hundreds of the packets since last year.
"Hello ma'am?" she asked Malva Spruell, who was leaning in a doorway in the Tenderloin on an afternoon earlier this week. "Would you like a pair of gloves and a hat?"
"Free?" Spruell asked.
"From the heart - it's a Valentine's present," Dukes told her.
"Oh, I don't have my teeth in," Spruell told her, embarrassedly covering her mouth with her hand.
Dukes assured her that was all right and asked if she'd wear the new gifts.
"Damn right!" Spruell responded. "I haven't tried them on yet, but I love them so far."
Dukes, who has three children ages 4, 15 and 23 and a 2-year-old grandchild, was renting a place in Antioch in the midst of a separation from her husband when she took the job at San Francisco's 911 dispatch center in late 2006. But when she realized she could afford her own home in Stockton, she jumped at the chance - and has been commuting ever since.
The city controller says the city needs 188 frontline dispatchers, but it has been severely short-staffed for years. There are 120 dispatchers now who handle 4,000 calls daily.
Recruiting more dispatchers is hard because they must pass a written exam, a background check and a polygraph, rivaling what it takes to become a police officer.
"When I came in, they were short-staffed, and that seems to be a continuing trend there," Dukes said. "But it pretty much puts my life in perspective. When you think your life is bad, you might get a call that just really sets you straight."
For Dukes, those calls have included raging house fires, senile people confused about who they've called, and a woman awakened in the night to the sounds of a stranger using her bathroom.
"You have to try to keep them calm, wait for help to arrive, try to coach them through it," she said.
And yes, she was there when Tatiana the tiger escaped from her grotto at the zoo on Christmas Day. Another dispatcher handled the calls made from the zoo, but plenty of concerned neighbors also called in.
"It was scary to say the least," she said. "We got calls from the public thinking they see the tree moving in their backyard, and it's got to be the tiger. We're telling them, no, the tiger's inside the zoo. But they say no, I see it in my backyard."
When she started, she was on the midnight shift - "the mids" in dispatcher lingo - and got off around 7 a.m. After seeing scores of homeless people in the cold on her way back home, she began buying the items to give away.
"It was kind of scary - it was still dark and dreary and the weather was just not good," she said. "I didn't want to attract a bunch of people so I'd try to go where I'd see one or two people and I'd pass out the gloves. The following week was payday, and I did it again."
Her co-workers have pitched in too, but Dukes thinks they might be sick of her since she's already hit them up this year for donations for a toy drive, a canned food drive and a warm coat drive.
Katherine Ripley-Williams, executive director of the San Francisco General Hospital Foundation, said Dukes was nominated for the award by her co-workers.
"This is a person who has an important job dealing with emergencies in all of our lives, and yet at the end of the night when she heads home she's still willing to go that extra mile to help people," she said. "You just have to admire somebody who's willing to do that."
Count David Duerner among Dukes' fans. Dukes gave him matching blue gloves and a hat earlier this week, and he immediately tried them on.
"That's the nicest thing anybody did for me today," he told her. "They're great. When I'm cold at night, they'll be even greater."