TAMPA - Hillsborough County's abused, neglected and abandoned children lost their biggest supporter over the weekend.
Dottie Berger MacKinnon, former Hillsborough County commissioner and longtime children's advocate who raised millions in establishing safe havens for at-risk kids, died Sunday morning. She was 71 and had been battling intestinal cancer for more than three years.
“She has touched a lot of people,” said her husband of 17 years, A.D. “Sandy” MacKinnon. He talked Sunday morning about the stream of people who came to visit his wife over the past several weeks, to say their farewells to a woman who had battled cancer on and off for more than a decade, but who never let that get in the way of her advocacy.
“A lot of great people have been by, loving family and friends,” he said. “It's been a real celebration, really.
“It's been an honor to have been a part of her life.”
Besides the survivors in her immediate family, including a blended family of five children and 17 grandchildren, Berger MacKinnon leaves countless other, unrelated children whose lives she improved after they were abused, neglected or fostered.
“Dottie was tenacious and dogged in her pursuit for doing what was right and fighting for children,” said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn in a statement released Sunday afternoon. “To the hundreds of neglected or abused children whose lives she touched, she was not just their advocate, she was also their friend. Dottie listened to them and gave them a voice. She was a living testament to the fact that one person can really make the difference in someone else's life. Tampa is a better place because her.”
Berger MacKinnon was the driving force behind the 1992 opening of Joshua House — a temporary safe haven in Lutz for abused and unwanted children. She then helped create a $1.2 million endowment to ensure its continuation.
“It always came down to one simple rule with Dottie,” said DeDe Grundel, executive director of the Friends of Joshua House Foundation. “Do the right thing and do it in the best interest of our children.
“A simple rule does not always mean it's easy to execute,” Grundel said. “And yet, Dottie could move mountains. She could push through almost any barrier to achieve her goal.”
Berger MacKinnon later established A Kid's Place, a 60-bed temporary emergency foster-care center in Valrico specifically designated to house siblings and to keep them together after being rescued from neglectful or abusive homes. Hillsborough circuit Judge Tracy Sheehan said Berger MacKinnon single-handedly raised almost $5.5 million for A Kid's Place.
“She liked to joke that when her friends saw her coming they would run the other way because they knew she would be asking for money,” said Sheehan, who serves on the facility's board of directors. “There is no way to count how many children's lives she has touched. The woman is a saint.”
Her friends would say that Berger MacKinnon was a woman who believed that one person could change the world and that as long as she had a breath of left in her body it was her duty to continue to try.
Longtime friend Julie Weintraub recalled a time in 2010, shortly after Berger MacKinnon's cancer diagnosis. She had received the Florida Senate Spirit of Service Award. Former state Sen. Victor Crist was the presenter.
“Rather than giving a speech about herself, she turned to Crist and said, 'I'd rather have $500,000 in state funds for A Kid's Place,'” said Weintraub. “Only she would say something like that. What a woman. She lived a remarkable life.”
Berger MacKinnon's journey began as Dottie Crutcher on Feb. 19, 1942 on a farm in Vine Grove, Ky.
One of nine children, Berger MacKinnon had larger dreams than her small town could offer, so at 15 she moved in with an aunt who lived in Maryland on the outskirts of Washington. It was there that she fell in love with politics and decided she would one day become a part of it.
In 1966, she moved to Tampa, and while working full time for Two Rivers Ranch, attended the University on South Florida on weekends and evenings, earning a B.A. in political science in 1984.
The mother of an adopted child herself, she joined the board of directors of the Gulf Coast Division for the Children's Home Society of Florida. In 1985, she became a member of its state board, a move that opened the door for Berger MacKinnon into the lives of the area's abused children. She realized there was a need for a shelter for them, a place where they could heal their minds, bodies and souls and Joshua House was born.
In 1994, she ran for the District 4 seat on the Hillsborough County Commission and went on to serve as its chairman from 1996-97. She lost her bid for re-election in 1998, a loss she later would say was a blessing; she said if she had won she would never have found the time to receive the breast exam that revealed cancer in July 1999.
“When I asked what she was going to do, she simply said, 'Live of course,'” said former-Tampa Mayor Dick Greco.
“She was determined to fight it because she said she had too much more to do for the kids still,” said Sheehan.
That “more” turned out to be A Kid's Place.
Previously, siblings removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect would sometimes have to be separated while their situation was assessed and a residence that could house them together was found.
Children who'd just been separated from their parents should not have to suffer the trauma of separation from their siblings, Berger MacKinnon often would say.
“She fought such a good fight. She was strong for so very long,” said Virginia Johnson, executive director of A Kid's Place. “She was diagnosed over three years ago and she fought for so long and hard. She still had unfinished things she wanted to do.”
Up until the end, Johnson said, Berger MacKinnon was calling meetings between board members and other children's advocates.
“She just never gave up,” Johnson said. Berger MacKinnon had chaired the board of Joshua House up until last month when she resigned.
“She was our founder,” Johnson said. “She is our visionary and she leaves behind a tremendous legacy. She fought hard for children who had been abused and neglected and for children who really didn't have a voice.”
Berger MacKinnon continued to chair A Kid's Place board and had chaired Friends of Joshua House from 2003 to 2006. She's been a guardian ad litem for the past 10 years and was a member of St. John's Episcopal Church. She also served on the board of directors at Tampa General Hospital from 2000 to 2007.
In July 2010, she learned she had intestinal cancer. Doctors informed her that there was little they could do and that she had just a few months to live.
“She sent an email to all of her friends with the sad news,” said Greco. “And in that letter she said that if it was God's will that she does more for this community, she would live much longer than the doctors projected.”
She survived another three years, and continued to support the community, until 8:27 a.m. Sunday, when she died in her home, under the care of Hospice.
Sheehan visited Berger MacKinnon recently and said the long-time advocate had accepted her final days were upon her. But rather than asking for sympathy, she detailed to Sheehan what needed to be done in the coming months at A Kid's Place.
Weintraub visited her as well. She said when she broke down in tears and asked Berger MacKinnon who she would turn to for advice when she was gone, Berger MacKinnon took a pencil and pad and wrote down names and numbers of several friends and acquaintances.
“I'm trying to wrap my head around her not being here anymore,” said Weintraub. “I'll never forget her.”
Funeral arrangements were pending Sunday.
Staff writer Keith Morelli contributed to this report.