Dottie Berger MacKinnon was a force of change for abused kids

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by Sue Carlton, Times Columnist, Tampa Bay Times | Oct 18, 2013

As the story goes, Dottie Berger was deep into the latest newspaper article about yet another child who had died in foster care. She was talking to Bob Thomas, businessman, rancher and major philanthropist.

This is terrible, she said. Somebody's got to do something.

And Thomas replied: You're somebody, aren't you?

Ask anyone who knew her: Dottie Berger, later Dottie Berger MacKinnon, was indeed somebody and also something else. A Hillsborough County commissioner for a time, she was more importantly a driving force for abused and neglected kids, and one of the reasons they lay their heads at safe havens called Joshua House and A Kid's Place.

Joshua House, born 20 years ago in part out of that conversation about somebody needing to do something, sits on 11 peaceful acres in Lutz. In a semicircle facing an oak-shaded lawn are four residential houses for kids 7 to 17, kids hurt or left behind, needing help and a home.

A child could be here a day. He could live here for years.

To call this a shelter is an understatement, though. In each house's open kitchen, kids eat together like family. They sleep two or three to a bedroom under bright murals and thick comforters. When I was there, they had just decorated for Halloween and with great enthusiasm, kids from one house making off with the decorations from another for fun.

Residents chalk their names, their scrawled hearts and their teenage thoughts on blackboard paint that covers furniture. A bulletin board schedules tutoring, pumpkin-carving and what day they go to Ribfest. On this day the kids are off at school, but they will soon spill into the sprawling, shady yard. A family of huge crows lives out there, loud and raucous and watching over.

The place has the feel of — if not a house waiting for its people to get home, then something close to it.

Kids here also get therapy for their trauma and grief. They get help.

Raising money for Joshua House had been a particular job of Berger MacKinnon's (next up: replacing the dated playground equipment with new stuff including a gazebo. The girls especially will like a gazebo.) She was adept at rallying friends to her causes.

And even up to the end, it seemed like you saw her everywhere.

Even when you heard she was very sick, there she was at a South Tampa power lunch spot, impeccably dressed and blond hair gleaming, or off to another board meeting.

"She had this effervescence, this inner glow," says DeDe Grundel, executive director of Friends of Joshua House Foundation and another founder of A Kid's Place in Brandon. No matter how sick her friend got, no matter how bad she felt, she got up, got dressed and got going. "She'd say 'I've got work to do,' " Grundel said.

"It's a very rare quality in a person."

Even a couple of weeks ago, Berger MacKinnon was at her own dining room table in her wheelchair for a meeting, stressing the importance of keeping siblings in crisis together instead of doling them out to wherever there was room. It was another thing she believed in.

Dottie Berger MacKinnon died this week at 71 after battling cancer.

Only 71, you want to say, when you look around at all somebody did for kids who needed her.


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