Chris Ingram, Commentary, The Tampa Tribune
To say that Dottie Berger MacKinnon had a big heart for kids is like saying Santa Claus is a jolly old fellow.
Berger MacKinnon, who died Sunday of cancer, served a single term on the Hillsborough County Commission from 1994-98. She was defeated for re-election in the Republican primary when conservative activists in the eastern part of Hillsborough County got upset with what they viewed as her liberal leanings. Her name occasionally came up in political circles, even six years later when I moved to Tampa.
But people who really knew her, knew her not for politics, but for her concern for kids.
My path didn’t formally cross with Berger MacKinnon’s until this year when I reached out to her to talk about child welfare issues. She graciously agreed to meet and invited me to her home, where we chatted for a few hours. A few weeks later, she took me on a tour of A Kid’s Place, the youth home in Brandon she was instrumental in founding.
“Martha [Cooke] is the reason for A Kid’s Place,” Berger said of her friend, who is a Hillsborough Circuit Court judge. The “Department of Children and Families wanted an emergency shelter. For a year and a half, Martha asked me to build it. She encouraged us to form A Kid’s Charity of Tampa Bay, and so we did. When we did, everyone was surprised. I didn’t know you had an option to not do something you said you would do,” she said during my visit to her home.
Countless planning meetings, fundraisers and months of construction later, A Kid’s Place was built in Brandon. Its five houses can accommodate children from birth to age 18. The purpose of A Kid’s Place is to keep siblings who are in the system from being split up. Oftentimes, siblings entering foster care have to be separated because there are not enough homes available for a large number of kids under the same roof.
“We don’t have the behavioral problems with these kids when we give them the emotional support and stability they need by keeping [siblings] together. We wanted to raise the bar on how we treat foster kids. Before, it was about numbers and money. We wanted it to be about the kids’ well-being,” Berger MacKinnon told me.
To understand how big Dottie Berger MacKinnon’s heart was, and how dedicated to children she was, you had to see her in action, as I did, at A Kid’s Place.
Unlike some children’s facilities or battered women’s shelters I have seen, A Kid’s Place doesn’t attempt to conceal what it is. The facility even has a welcoming sign on the side of the road. But the welcome ends there, as the buildings are surrounded by a fence and an electronic gate for the protection of the residents. As you walk up the main entrance, Berger MacKinnon’s name is on the building, and there is a bronze statue of her sitting on a park bench reading a book to a child.
She took me on a tour of the sprawling campus, which includes classrooms, an activity area, a spacious indoor recreation area with a huge play tree, a grassy yard with a gigantic play-set, and residential housing units. We went through classrooms, and she pointed out features the way you would expect a proud principal to show off her school. The classrooms were colorful and sparkling clean, and well-stocked with books, desks, toys and learning centers.
She told me that most children who arrive at A Kid’s Place or any foster care environment have little more than the clothes on their backs and perhaps a few items stuffed in a garbage bag that they carry with them when a child protection investigator removes them from their home. So when they arrive at A Kid’s Place, they go to a giant clothes closet where they pick out new or “gently used” clothes, shoes and other personal items that have been donated.
On the day I visited, there were dozens of kids playing around the courtyard, while others participated in craft projects in a giant playroom. Most of the kids recognized Dottie, and several ran up to her and gave her hugs. Not only did they know her, she knew many of them by name as well.
Kids at A Kid’s Place live in one of five group houses, which can have up to 12 kids along with a house parent. From the outside, the houses look like any home you might find in one of the county’s middle-class neighborhoods. Elementary school children attend classes on campus, and older students attend regular county schools while living at the facility.
As we walked around the campus, Berger MacKinnon’s attention turned to the people who work and volunteer at A Kid’s Place. She spoke glowingly of their dedication to the children. She told of a child who had arrived with a physical problem in his neck and how a physical therapist visited to show the staff how to massage it. Doctors said if he didn’t get a daily regimen of physical therapy, he would end up with permanent disability. The staff and volunteers massaged the boy’s neck daily for a year. When he left, it was almost 100 percent normal.
Most of the staff and volunteers are driven to give back and to help kids in need because they have either experienced or witnessed abuse or neglect, Berger told me.
I rather bluntly asked her, “So, what drives you, Dottie?”
“I don’t know,” I recall her saying softly. She then looked the other way, and I saw her eyes start to tear up. But she stopped herself from letting any more emotion show and quickly changed the subject to the artwork in the empty classroom where we were standing.
For that brief moment, her body was there, but her mind was miles away. There is a story to be told, and she’s told it to others, but not there. Not that day. That day was about showing off A Kid’s Place, not what drove Dottie Berger MacKinnon to build it.
As she concluded my tour, she named some of the groups and individuals who have been particularly helpful in the effort to make the world a better place for kids who are in the system. She named Sheriff David Gee, the Guardian ad Litem program, the volunteers at A Kid’s Place, teachers and social workers in the schools, among others. She also called out Judge Martha Cooke, telling me, “Martha is a hard worker. She is dedicated and really, truly has an interest in the kids.”
Martha told me the same thing about Dottie.