The community remembers and mourns today the death of Dottie Berger MacKinnon, whose tireless drive to meet the needs of kids living through the most difficult of times is just one of the causes that will continue to bear the imprint of her public service and personal beliefs for generations to come.
As reported yesterday on her Facebook page: “Blessing and prayers have been answered at 8:27 this morning , Sunday, October 13. Dottie went to be with the Lord. Love to all who have been on her journey with her.”
That “journey” will be told and retold in the days and years ahead, but close to home it’s A Kid’s Place, at 1715 Lithia Pinecrest Road, just south of Lumsden Road, that gives the Greater Brandon community reason to pause and reflect on the many lives uplifted because Dottie Berger MacKinnon walked among them.
“I have some wonderful friends,” Berger MacKinnon said, at the April 3, 2009 grand opening celebration for A Kid’s Place, a $5 million, state- of the-art center for abused, abandoned and neglected children and their siblings.
The center's aim is to provide a safe, healthy and
nurturing home for children who are taken from their homes, at least
temporarily, while the courts work to figure out what happened, and whether to
return these children to their homes or to find for them alternative placements.
A former Hillsborough County commissioner, Berger MacKinnon 22 years ago led a group of concerned citizens, including Bob Thomas, Olin Mott, Jim Zimmerman, Laurence Hall, Greg Johnson and Alberto de Alejosis, in the founding of the Joshua House in Lutz, a residential home for children who have been removed from their families. At the 2009 grand-opening celebration, Berger MacKinnon was credited as the driving force behind the founding of A Kid’s Place, too.
Realtor Connie Smaldone knows the story well.
“She walked into my real estate office years ago with a picture of the Joshua House in Lutz," Smaldone said, in an interview Oct. 13. “She said, 'We need to have one, we need this in Brandon, we need to build it and you need to find the land.' I said, ‘Yes, m’am.’ “
From that meeting, a deep friendship ensued.
“Her strength, her determination, is something I have never seen,” Smaldone said. “And she did it for the right reasons. It wasn’t about, ‘What it means for me.’ It was about what it means for the children.”
Earl Lennard, former Hillsborough County supervisor of elections and superintendent of schools, said Berger MacKinnon's tenacity is what people will remember most about Berger MacKinnon.
“She absolutely had a gentle way of getting people to come on board,” he said, also in an interview Oct. 13. “The Joshua House and A Kid’s Place, they’re both wonderful examples of her kindness and generosity.”
MacKinnon this year was inducted into the Hillsborough County Women's Hall of Fame, as the founder of Joshua House, Friends of Joshua House, Kids Charity of Tampa Bay and A Kid's Place in Brandon. She served as a Hillsborough County commissioner, from 1994-1998, and on the board of Tampa General Hospital.
Like Lennard, she, too, received Hillsborough County's Ellsworth G. Simmons Good Government Award, which honors a former or current government official or civic leader for improving government through leadership and vision.
Lennard said he first met Berger MacKinnon when he was
assistant superintendent of administration for the School District of
Hillsborough County and she was a Hillsborough County commissioner.
“She took her time as a county commissioner very seriously,” Lennard said. “Her whole world was about helping people and, particularly, children. She knew that if children, if young people, got the right start, then they would do all right as adults. She went out of her way to help people. That’s what she was about.”
Smaldone said she met with Berger MacKinnon two months after she was diagnosed with bile duct cancer, when the former commissioner was expected to live for just a few months more.
"That would have been three years ago next month," Smaldone added. "I always said, 'God's not ready for you yet. You haven't finished what he wanted you to do here.' That's what I think and I think she thought that, too."
In an interview earlier this year, Berger MacKinnon talked about her "deep and trusted friend," Olin Mott, who died in July at the age of 92.
Bob Thomas Equestrian Center.
"The three of us were like a team," MacKinnon said. "Anything you asked Olin to do he would do and he would always say, 'Dottie, load up my wagon, anything you need,' and he was always there for me, for years and years and years."
It was that association that helped MacKinnon realize the impossible, when she sought to establish a safe haven for abused, abandoned, and neglected children, today known as the Joshua House.
"There were like six children in this region who had died while in foster care or who had been killed by their parents and I just decided we needed to provide a safe place so the state could never say there wasn't a place for these kids to go to," MacKinnon said. "I didn't know how to pay for it. Bob Thomas realized I would never give up on this dream, so we went from there and found a location and started raising money and Olin Mott was a great big part of that."
Berger MacKinnon said Mott "was just a very giving, loving, kind person, just somebody you could always trust, somebody who was always there for you."
Lennard offered the same praise for Berger MacKinnon.
"She will be remembered for her kindness and her big heart," Lennard said. “In my mind, she was quintessential citizen, community leader and lady. The community is much better off because of her and will miss her greatly.”