News

  • Oct 14 2013

    Children's advocate Dottie Berger MacKinnon dies at 71

    by FOX 13 Staff
    TAMPA (FOX 13) -

    Former Hillsborough County Commissioner and longtime children's advocate Dottie Berger MacKinnon passed away Sunday morning of cancer. She was 71.

    Berger MacKinnon was a tireless advocate for women and children as the founder of Joshua House, Friends of Joshua House Foundation, Kids Charity of Tampa Bay and A Kid's Place.

    She was a county commissioner in District 4 from 1994 to 1998.

    Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn released a statement Sunday in regards to her passing.

    "Dottie was tenacious and dogged in her pursuit for doing what was right and fighting for children. 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," Mayor Buckhorn said.

    "My thoughts and prayers are with her husband, Sandy, and the entire MacKinnon family," he said.

    Berger MacKinnon's family told the Tampa Bay Times a memorial service should be held later in the week.

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  • Oct 14 2013

    Dottie Berger MacKinnon, child advocate, dies at 71

    by PAUL GUZZO, The Tampa Tribune

    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.

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  • Oct 14 2013

    Dottie Berger MacKinnon, a woman dedicated to helping kids, loses her battle with cancer

    by Jason Beisel, ABC Action News

    HILLBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. - The Bay Area bid farewell to a woman who dedicated her life to making life better for thousands of children. 

    Many would say Dottie Berger MacKinnon was more of an angel. A former Hillsborough County Commissioner, she spent most of her life helping abused and neglected children. 

    Judge Tracy Sheehan was one of Dottie’s best friends. 

    “This is a woman who got up everyday and volunteered 24/7 to make projects happen for the kids. Not to be remembered for that, not to have her name on some plaque, but because she believed and wanted to contribute to kids,” Judge Sheehan said. 

    In the early 90’s Dottie raised millions of dollars to open Joshua House in Lutz. It’s a home for children that have been abused, neglected, or abandoned. 

    To keep Joshua House alive and running for years to come, Dottie also founded the  Joshua House Foundation to help continue raising funds to keep the doors open at Joshua House. 

    She wasn’t done there. In 2009 she raised over 5 ½ million dollars to open A Kid’s Place, a state-of-the-art facility in Brandon that houses foster children who have been taken out of abusive or neglected homes, and keeping siblings together throughout the process. 

    Today over 775 kids have been helped there. Judge Sheehan sits on the board. 

    “If Dottie were here she would call that her greatest accomplishment and no doubt objectively it was. To have a place in this community where children can come into the foster care system and bounce into a wonderful placement and hopefully bounce out to their next best placement,” Judge Sheehan said. 

    After beating breast cancer, Dottie was diagnosed with cancer again 3 ½ years ago, this time bile duct cancer. 

    Doctors gave her three to four months to live, but Dottie of course beat those odds. 
    Just after 8:30 Sunday morning, Dottie decided it was time to go home to heaven, doing what she loved most until the very end. 

    “Right down to the end the last three weeks when she has been laying in hospice and literally on her death bed, she was still on the job, finishing stuff, insisting people coming over for a meeting. Insisting on taking care of this last loose end as far as some projects with respect to the kids,” Judge Sheehan said.

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  • Oct 14 2013

    Tireless children's advocate Dottie Berger MacKinnon dies at 71

    by Andrew Meacham, Tampa Bay Times

    TAMPA — Dottie Berger Mac-Kinnon, a former Hillsborough County commissioner and a celebrated advocate for abused and neglected children, died Sunday morning of cancer. She was 71.

    Her husband, A.D. "Sandy" MacKinnon, said his wife died surrounded by her family at her Tampa home at 8:27 a.m.

    "She had a rough couple of days," Mac-Kinnon said. "She's now in a much better place."

    One of the most widely honored figures in recent Hillsborough history, Mrs. Berger MacKinnon was known for taking on one of the toughest issues any community can face: how to lessen the daily damage being done to children in abusive or dysfunctional homes.

    Mrs. Berger MacKinnon was a co-founder of Joshua House and Friends of Joshua House, and the founder regarded as most central to the Kids Charity of Tampa Bay and A Kid's Place, which all offer aid to children in crisis.

    She helped raise millions in private donations, spearheading a key move to keep siblings together in A Kid's Place in Brandon, then forged personal relationships with teen mothers and children who had been taken out of their homes.

    "In our community, the name Dottie stands for passion, integrity, tenacity and love," former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said. "Her life has been a gift, especially for our vulnerable children who have needed a friend and advocate."

    Even in her last days, Mrs. Berger MacKinnon worked on issues she loved, participating in A Kid's Place board meeting by phone a week or so ago, Iorio said Sunday.

    Iorio recalled how, during that conversation, Mrs. Berger Mac-Kinnon talked about how much better the world would be if everybody took the time to help someone less fortunate.

    "It always came down to one simple rule with Dottie: 'Do the right thing, and do it in the best interest of our children,' " said DeDe Grundel, the executive director of Friends of Joshua House Foundation and another founder of A Kid's Place. "A simple rule does not always mean it's easy to execute. And yet Dottie could move mountains. She could push through almost any barrier to achieve her goal."

    All the while, Mrs. Berger MacKinnon was fighting her own battles with breast cancer diagnosed a dozen years ago; then duct cancer diagnosed in 2010. She remained active almost to the end, calling her survival miraculous even though "miracle doesn't always mean cure."

    • • •

    Her knack for handling crisis began early.

    Dorothy Crutcher was born in Vine Grove, Ky., in 1942, one of 10 children. At age 15, her parents sent her to live with younger cousins in Maryland.

    She lived in Washington, D.C., after high school, a couple of blocks from the White House. At the time, it was not uncommon to see President John. F. Kennedy's limousine riding by, kindling an interest in the political world.

    A marriage brought her to Tampa, where she worked with rancher Bob Thomas at his Two Rivers Ranch and first grew dissatisfied with county government regulations she considered nonsensical.

    In 1992, Mrs. Berger MacKinnon and several other citizens co-founded Joshua House, a shelter in Lutz for kids, which now handles children ages 7 to 17 who have been removed from their homes.

    One of those was a 4-year-old named Crystal. She stayed there until age 7, when she was adopted by a St. Petersburg couple. Now 21, Crystal Obst remembers Mrs. Berger MacKinnon as "such an inspiration to me."

    "She used to tell me all the time that I was God's little sunbeam," Obst said.

    Mrs. Berger MacKinnon continued her brand of practical activism in 1994, winning a seat on the Hillsborough County Commission. "I thought I could save the world, but I don't know if I did," Mrs. Berger MacKinnon later told the Tampa Tribune.

    As a commissioner, Mrs. Berger MacKinnon supported a Community Investment Tax and argued for privatizing Tampa General Hospital, both controversial stances she associated with her failed re-election bid in 1998.

    In 2001, she married A.D. "Sandy" MacKinnon, who owned a forklift company now called MacKinnon Equipment and Services. They were a philanthropic team, sitting on numerous boards and donating to charities.

    Mrs. Berger MacKinnon served on the Hillsborough County Hospital Authority, as well as three terms on Tampa General Hospital's governing board.

    • • •

    In 1999, Mrs. Berger MacKinnon was diagnosed with breast cancer. Treatment required at least 11 surgeries.

    "She was an inspiration for a lot of women because even when she had the breast cancer, she muscled through everything," Grundel said. "She just had this fortitude. If she was having surgery one day, she would roll out of bed on the next, put on her hair and makeup and go to another meeting."

    After a nudge by mutual friends of lawyer Tracy Sheehan, Mrs. Berger MacKinnon approached Sheehan, who was undergoing chemotherapy, in the Harbor Island Athletic Club.

    She offered encouragement, then persuaded Sheehan to take on pro bono cases for the children of Joshua House. Mrs. Berger MacKinnon was serving as chairwoman of the foundation, Friends of Joshua House.

    Sheehan later became a Hillsborough Circuit judge and helped found A Kid's Place. Though judges don't refer children in crisis to specific agencies, many she removed from their homes wound up there.

    "Not only has Dottie led the charge to help needy children in the bay area, she has inspired countless others to join in her quest to ensure the neediest among us are cared for," Sheehan said.

    In the mid 2000s, she became increasingly concerned about children in the foster care system. Siblings often were separated. And it was not unusual for kids to bounce from one home to another. "They're traumatized because they're removed from their families, and now they're traumatized more because they've split the kids up," she told the Times.

    Mrs. Berger MacKinnon, Grundel and others founded Kid's Charity of Tampa Bay in 2006.

    The group then raised $5 million to open a 60-bed facility on Lithia Pinecrest Road in 2009, boosted by several private contributions in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and $1 million from Sandy MacKinnon.

    Though Mrs. MacKinnon was, as Grundel put it, "the visionary" behind A Kid's Place, getting it started was far from a solo effort. Every local agency that deals with child welfare helped put the program together. Children entered A Kid's Place for a stay of several weeks, during which time they could be assessed by professionals. They played in the 5-acre plot and interacted with adult volunteers and staffers, who pushed them on the swing or read to them.

    It was the first facility of its kind in Hillsborough County.

    • • •

    Just as that achievement was taking root, doctors delivered grim news: Mrs. Berger MacKinnon had bile duct cancer. Before the diagnosis, various agencies had honored her work. With the advent of A Kid's Place, the awards increased, including an annual award by the Tampa General Hospital Foundation in 2009.

    In the last few years, public gratitude has rained down. In 2011 alone, Hood Simply Smart Milk, the League of Women Voters and Hillsborough County all named Mrs. Berger MacKinnon as the recipient of annual awards. Iorio named the playground at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park after her. In March, Mrs. Berger MacKinnon was inducted into the Hillsborough County Women's Hall of Fame.

    A privately delivered accolade might have meant just as much.

    Crystal Obst, the former charge of Joshua House, had kept in touch with Mrs. Berger Mac-Kinnon as she grew up. Things hadn't been easy. She had made a few mistakes, including falling in love with a man who left when she told him she was pregnant.

    Now the mother of a baby girl, Obst recently visited Mrs. Berger MacKinnon. "I told her, 'Honestly, Dottie, you have been God's little sunbeam in my life, the only thing that motivated me and made me push on.' "

    Funeral arrangements are incomplete. But Mrs. Berger MacKinnon's family said a memorial service would be held later in the week.

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  • Oct 12 2013

    Mercury New Media wins Gold in the 2013 W3 Awards

    by Mercury New Media

    We were recently notified that the Friends of Joshua House  website was a Gold winner in the 2013 W3 Award competition.  

    The W³ Awards  honors creative excellence on the web, and recognizes the creative and marketing professionals behind award winning sites, marketing programs, and video work created for the web. In honoring outstanding websites, web advertising, web video, & Mobile Apps. The W³ Awards is the first major web competition to be accessible to the biggest agencies, the smallest firms, and everyone in between. Small firms are as likely to win as Fortune 500 companies and international agencies.

    In its seventh year the W³ Awards received over 4,000 entries from Ad agencies, Public Relations Firms, Interactive Agencies, In-house creative professionals, Web Designers, Graphic designers and Web Enthusiasts.   The W³ is sanctioned and judged by the International Academy of the Visual Arts, an invitation-only body consisting of top-tier professionals from a "Who's Who" of acclaimed media, interactive, advertising, and marketing firms.  In determining winners, entries are judged based on a standard of excellence as determined by the IAVA, according to the category entered. To uphold a high standard of excellence, a category may have multiple winners, or may have no winners at all. Entries are scored on a ten point scale by the judges.  Less than 10% of all entries are selected as Gold Winners.   For more information about the W³ Awards, please visit www.w3award.com.

    While we’ve been proud of this work all along, it’s always nice to receive outside recognition by industry experts.  I am proud of the work we’ve achieved together.  Now, let’s use this great asset to spread our message and help the kids!

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  • Sep 18 2013

    Girl Power! Presents the Power of Dreaming at Joshua House

    by The Junior League of Tampa

    On Saturday, September 14th, the Junior League of Tampa presented their September Girl Power event at Joshua House.  The theme of the event was The Power of Dreaming.  Motivational speaker, Kellie Lightbourne gave a personal and inspirational speech to the girls of Joshua House.  Kellie is a former Mrs. USA title holder, regular correspondent for Designing Spaces, and also holds a Juris Doctorate, Masters Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy, and a Ph.D in Transpersonal Counseling.  She is the co-founder of Teen Edge, a non-profit program which teaches leadership and success training to inner-city youth and creator of Girl Camp, a life-coaching program designed to empower young girls and their parents by teaching life strategies and authentic communications techniques.  These achievements did not come easily for Kellie and she told the girls how she had to think out of the box and work hard to achieve all of her goals.  Kellie taught the girls about going after their dreams and goals and gave them guidance on the steps and resources for how to achieve them. 

    The Junior League of Tampa volunteers and Kellie worked together to help the young women at Joshua House create their own journal and write down their personal aspirations.  The girls documented a personal goal, a roadmap to get there and resources to help them along the way.  They then signed the bottom as a personal contract with themselves and the Junior League of Tampa volunteers provided a second signature promising to follow up on the status of these goals.  The girls were able to decorate and personalize these journals to make them their own.  The event was a smashing success and the Girl Power project is off to a great start.  The Junior League of Tampa can’t wait to come back in October for their next event, The Power of Education! 

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  • Aug 13 2013

    Hillsborough supply drives aim to help schoolchildren in need

    by Times staff

    The Friends of Joshua House Foundation Inc. is seeking donations of school supplies and money to buy supplies for foster children. Items sought include backpacks, notebooks, pens, pencils, markers and binders. The foundation also is seeking specialty items including dictionaries, thesauruses, scientific calculators, trifold display boards, dry erase markers, correction tape, report covers, sheet protectors, flash drives, mechanical pencils, zippered pencil pouches and uniform shirts and pants for boys and girls in all sizes. For a complete list of items, visit friendsofjoshua house.org and click on "How You Can Help."

    School supplies may be taken to a dropoff location until Aug. 12. Dropoff locations include:

    • TransWorld, 4115 W Spruce St., Tampa. Call (813) 875-6200.

    • Paci's Pizza, 2307 S Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa. Call (813) 253-2973.

    • Elite Travel Management Group Inc., Harbor Park, 33920 U.S. 19 N, Suite 251, Palm Harbor. Call (727) 726-9090.

    • Scraporium, 16518 N Florida Ave., Lutz. Call (813) 269-7946.

    • Lazy Days, 6130 Lazydays Blvd., Seffner. Call toll-free 1-800-306-4002.

    • Several Subway restaurant and Bay Cities Banks locations.

    For a complete list of dropoff locations, go to friendsofjoshuahouse.org.

    The foundation also is seeking people to hold collections in their workplaces, neighborhoods or community organizations. Ro get information or to set up a collection, contact Nanci March at nmarch@friendsofjoshuahouse.org or (813) 728-3165.

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  • Aug 13 2013

    Brimmer, Burek, and Keelan, LLP

    by Brimmer, Burek, and Keelan, LLP

    Gemma, through her Rotary club, called upon our staff to help the Friends of the Joshua House Foundation in hopes of a little helping hand to those so desperately in need, especially during the holiday time.

    The Friends of the Joshua House Foundation ran a “Supply Drive” so that every child at Joshua House has the tools they need to be successful in this world.  BBK came through in flying colors.  The involvement from the staff was incredible. 

    Background - Joshua House is a safe haven for abused, abandoned, and neglected children, offering a therapeutic residential group care program that provides a protected, nurturing, family-like environment for children six - seventeen. These children have been removed from their homes due to crisis and many have been through multiple foster homes.  Hundreds of children have passed through Joshua House since it opened. Each story of abuse and neglect is as unique as the child. With five homes on 11 acres, Joshua House promotes growth, stability, and support specific to each child’s need. Keeping sibling groups together is just one of the many ways Joshua House makes a difference.

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  • Jul 30 2013

    Groups Help Hillsborough Students Return to School

    by LENORA LAKE
    Special correspondent 

    Published: July 30, 2013

    TAMPA - DeDe Grundel has 36 children to get ready to go back to school with uniforms, backpacks, paper, pencils, crayons, calculators and other items.

    As executive director of Friends of Joshua House, Grundel is one of many social services organization staff members and volunteers trying to properly prepare foster children to return to classes.

    Other agencies across the county also are assisting low-income families with the supplies they need, which total hundreds of dollars per child.

    "What is the challenge is not all schools - or classes - have the same standard list," Grundel said. "It goes beyond the crayons and the pencils."

    She said the 36 children in the care of Joshua House in Lutz attend several different schools, and each has its own uniform standard. 

    According to Kids Charity of Tampa Bay, which assists A Kid's Place in Brandon, there are 5,327 children in foster care in the area; 70 percent of them attend prekindergarten through high school.

    There is no state funding for the school supplies, Grundel said. Organizations depend on school supply drives from individuals and corporations, as well as donations of cash and gift cards to stores such as Walmart, Target, Bealls, Sears and J.C. Penney. Volunteer shoppers then buy the supplies or uniforms. 

    Donors can go online to a registry to help dress a child by buying specific items and sizes, much like a wedding gift registry.

    Grundel said she counts on organizations and supporters to help make the project possible.

    Those supporters include B.J. and Mitchell Newberger, who donate every year and took it a step further this year through Mitchell's 75th birthday party earlier this month.

    Guests received an email saying he didn't want gifts; but if they "insisted on doing something," they could bring school supplies for foster children.

    The Lutz couple ended up with 12 backpacks, stacks of paper, numerous boxes of crayons, calculators, hand sanitizer and other supplies.

    "This is so much better than a bunch of gag gifts," B.J. Newberger said, looking over the bounty in her Lutz home during the party.

    Her husband added, "Wow, we got a lot; those kids need it."

    Grundel said a Seminole Heights couple always has a Christmas in July party to which admission is a bag of school supplies or a $25 check.

    The Hillsborough Education Foundation, meanwhile, helps teachers get supplies for at-risk students. 

    According to the foundation's newsletter, "56 percent of Hillsborough County Public Schools are classified as Title I. This means that 75 percent or more of the students at these schools are considered economically disadvantaged and may face challenges in purchasing basic school supplies."

    The foundation sponsors the Teaching Tools Store, where teachers can get needed supplies.

    "Unlike other back-to-school supply drives, which are focused on the first day of school, our goal is to provide students with the critical learning resources they need all year long," states the foundation's newsletter.

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  • Apr 20 2013

    Survivor of child sex trade to speak at lunch for Joshua House

    by Caitlin Johnston

    TAMPA — The red high heels. The hair dye. The way he made each decision about what she should wear and how she should look.

    Looking back, each detail jumps out as a sign. But to the 14-year-old weighed down by depression and an inexplicable sense of isolation, this man was a way out.

    It wouldn't dawn on the young Holly Smith until he brought her to a hotel room that this man didn't want to be her friend.

    He wanted to sell her body for sex.

    Exact numbers are hard to pin down, but some experts estimate that as many as 300,000 children in the United States are at risk of being prostituted each year.

    The U.S. Department of Justice labeled human trafficking the second fastest growing criminal industry (with drug trafficking first). More than 2,500 U.S. trafficking cases were under investigation in 2010.

    But it would take 17 years and meeting another trafficking survivor before Smith, 35, stopped blaming herself and realized the truth: Human trafficking exists right here in our cities and suburbs.

    And she was a victim.

    "I still struggled with it for a long time, even in my mid 20s," Smith said. "I thought it was my fault. I didn't understand what happened to me. There was no one there to help me understand it."

    Smith will share her story with guests at the annual Child Abuse Awareness Luncheon today at the Hilton Tampa Downtown, at 211 N Tampa St. DeDe Grundel, executive director of the Friends of Joshua House Foundation, hopes Smith's message will connect with locals, even though her case took place in New Jersey.

    "Probably what will resonate is that her demographic is that of anybody's child in the room," Grundel said. "That in itself is probably the message that people have the hard time getting. They think 'those poor, pitiful foster children, those poor throwaway children.'

    "It can be anyone's child who is led into this. If your child, who is raised in a strong, formidable family, a family that is rooted in stability and structure, can be led out, then what do you think it's doing to the kids who are vulnerable?"

    • • •

    Smith came from a middle-class home in South Jersey. But despite a seemingly stable home life, she suffered from depression and a crippling lack of self-worth.

    The summer before her freshman year, she couldn't shake the feeling that something bad was waiting for her in high school. She couldn't find a boyfriend, her best friend was in a new crowd she just didn't fit in with, and she was convinced she would be bullied and beaten up at school.

    "I had this impending doom feeling," she said. "I was definitely desperate to find a way out."

    That way out presented itself in a brief encounter at the mall. She was trailing a group of friends when she noticed a guy staring. He was older, but young enough to look like a friend's older brother.

    When she kept eye contact for a few seconds, he waved her over. They talked just long enough to exchange phone numbers. Smith walked back to her friends feeling elated. Out of all of them, he had chosen her. Her sense of self swelled.

    For two weeks, they talked on the phone on her private line while her parents watched TV downstairs, oblivious. He asked her about her life. Her fears, her passions. Her intense urge to travel and to perform. She wanted to be a singer. She wanted to meet Julia Roberts. She wanted to be anywhere except where she was.

    "He said he could take me to clubs all over the country and I could meet famous people," she said. "He didn't talk about sex. He didn't talk about any creepy topics. We talked long enough for me at 14 to feel like, all right, he's okay."

    • • •

    When they met again at another mall, he seemed different. Colder, more reserved. Less interested in her dreams, her life.

    He took her from store to store, looking at dresses and outfits, picking out a pair of red high heels for her. He said he was going to take her to clubs, but then they arrived at a hotel room. There, a woman in her 20s dyed her hair a bright, unnatural blond, double dyeing it until the chemicals burned through her hair. A sense of unease began to creep through.

    The real danger didn't set in until they made it clear what she was going to be doing that night. Suddenly, everything started moving too quickly. The cab ride. The instructions. The lights and sounds on the streets of Atlantic City. It only took a minute before the first man approached. The woman who had dyed her hair talked briefly with the man. They settled on the price.

    Two hundred dollars.

    • • •

    It went that way the rest of the night, till dawn. When she returned to the hotel, the man who had wooed her over the phone raped her. And then he sent her out again the next night.

    "People ask why didn't I run away, why didn't I go running through the door," Smith said. "It was difficult for me to answer that because, in essence, I was already running away. I didn't really have any options."

    She worked the streets of Atlantic City for 36 hours until a police officer noticed her.

    "It wasn't a positive experience," she said. "He arrested me. He really sort of ridiculed me with the typical labels."

    By the time two detectives arrived on the scene and realized she was a victim who had been coerced, she had already shut down. They returned Smith to her parents, who didn't understand what happened. They blamed her. Kids at school taunted her.

    "When I showed up at school, it got around what happened," she said. "People I knew were calling me a hooker and a prostitute. I was devastated."

    She lasted two days before dropping out. She went to live with her aunt for a brief stint before enrolling in a program for alcohol and drug addictions — not because she was an addict but because no place existed for trafficking victims.

    "After being trafficked, kids are in great need of psychiatric help and counseling," she said. "They need really specialized services. I just didn't get that. There was nobody that could help me understand it or work through it."

    • • •

    More than 20 years later, Smith has a grasp on her life and what happened to her. She focused on her education, graduating from high school and earning a bachelor of arts in biology. She found a great job. She got married.

    But she couldn't shake the pain until one night in 2009, she watched a documentary on human trafficking in India.

    "I thought, 'Wow, that sounds a lot like what happened to me,' " she said. "But I was like, 'There's no way I was a human trafficking victim.' "

    She dug further and started reading more about domestic trafficking. Case after case sounded eerily similar to hers. Then she met another trafficking victim. Through their conversations, Smith realized the truth.

    "For so long, I was carrying around the idea it was my fault," she said. "I finally understand that I was manipulated and exploited. It's like I am finally picking up my life again."

    She's an advocate now, speaking across the country and working as a training consultant for AMBER Alert. Through her research, she developed a passion about and an expertise in the topic that led her to write a book on child sex trafficking that will be published this winter.

    "Every time I hear another child's story, I am motivated more and more to spread awareness and to tell my story," she said, "to do whatever I can to help others."

    Caitlin Johnston can be reached at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3111.

    Survivor of child sex trade to speak at lunch for Joshua House 04/18/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 17, 2013 1:48pm]

    © 2013 Tampa Bay Times


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