I remember as if it were yesterday. It was 1991 and I was a Hillsborough County commissioner representing District 2, which included Lutz. Dottie Berger came to see me about a rezoning that was running into a little trouble.
You see, Dottie had a dream of helping children who didn’t have anyone else. Children abused and abandoned who found themselves without a stable place to live. Children who didn’t have any love in their lives.
Her dream was called Joshua House, and it was envisioned as a complex of residential homes nestled among the orange groves in Lutz, where the children could find peace and, hopefully, a new family. A few residents worried that this residential complex would bring trouble to their neighborhood and were opposed. Dottie was a little breathless that day in my office, rolling out the plans, showing me all the details, and insisting that I go out and take a look at the property.
Who could say no to Dottie? I did visit the site and was convinced the Joshua House fit well with the neighborhood. The rezoning garnered the support of the County Commission in 1991, and the next year Joshua House was born.
We became friends, and for the next 22 years I watched Dottie in action.
Her life is a textbook example of how passion changes lives.
Dottie has not allowed her unbelievable journey with cancer to diminish this passion. Doctors didn’t give her more than six months to live when she was first diagnosed. That was more than three years ago. Her last three years have been a tutorial to all of her friends on how to fully live when death is calling. Every day Dottie got up, made sure she looked great, and dove into her community work, helping forgotten children. The past three years have seen A Kids Place in Brandon come to fruition. Here again, children who otherwise fall between the cracks in our society find a safe refuge.
When Dottie spoke of children in need, she would often cry. She couldn’t stand the thought of children being abused, neglected and forgotten. She hated the thought of siblings being pulled apart, of too-big bureaucracies unable to adequately care for children in their care. She cried because this was her passion.
And her passion has made our community better. I’ve come to see this as a critical trait in community building.
We can look today at structures, organizations and programs that give our Tampa Bay home substance, character and livability. Each improvement was started by individuals who believed in something bigger than their own needs and desires. Giving, filling a need, helping their community get a little bit better was that person’s way of life. A passion gave way to a concrete idea. The idea took root, and the community was forever changed for the better.
This is a part of our history that is harder to chronicle and share. From our earliest pioneer days to today, Tampa Bay’s history has been defined by thousands of acts of generosity, kindness and passion that have helped us grow and have defined our values.
Dottie became Dottie Berger MacKinnon 12 years ago when she married Sandy MacKinnon. They have been quite a team! He loved her spirit and commitment to children. He was her partner in all of her charitable good works, and together they volunteered and set an example of a full philanthropic life.
My last conversation with Dottie was 10 days ago. She knew her time on Earth was coming to an end, and she was at peace. She shared with me this thought: If each person would lend a helping hand to just one other person, imagine what a difference it would make. The person they helped would then help another and cause a positive ripple effect. Wouldn’t the world be a better place?
Enough said. Thanks, Dottie.
Pam Iorio, the former mayor of Tampa, is a speaker and author. Her history column, Our Journey, runs biweekly in The Tampa Tribune. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.