In September 2006, Bob and Kay Dillinger thought their world had collapsed. Their beloved daughter and only child, Beth, took her own life at age 31 for reasons her parents still struggle to understand.
But in 2007, the St. Petersburg couple began to turn their heartache into something positive that might save someone else's child.
"When you go through what Bob and I went through, you have two choices," Kay said. "You can give up or you can go out and try to make a difference."
They are making a difference. Kay and Bob, who has been the Pinellas-Pasco public defender since 1997, created the Beth Dillinger Foundation, a four-pronged nonprofit organization designed to serve children in need.
The foundation's first program was Beth's Closet at the Pace Center for Girls in Pinellas Park, a nonprofit that provides programs for at-risk girls ages 12 to 18. From the closet, Pace girls get clothing, shoes, purses, jewelry and other items.
In 2008 the Dillingers started the Beth Dillinger Scholarship Fund for boys and girls who want to continue their education.
The next year, they added the Hope Chest closets to provide clothes and other essentials for abused, neglected or abandoned youth. The closets are located in the public defender offices in Largo, New Port Richey and Dade City.
Their newest program began in August. Concerned about the 7,000 chronically hungry children in Pinellas County, they started Nourish to Flourish, a program providing nutritious meals for children who don't get enough to eat at home.
Bob had a vision for the Beth Dillinger Foundation: "I thought if we fed, clothed and educated the children, we would run the spectrum," he said.
Of Nourish to Flourish, he said, "I want every elementary school child to be fed. You can't learn if you're hungry."
With an $8,500 grant from Bank of America, the couple began the program by providing 12-item food trays to 60 children at High Point Elementary School near Largo — a school where 89 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Purchased from GA Foods, the trays are delivered to the children to take home each weekend during the school year.
The foundation is steadily increasing the number of children served by Nourish to Flourish. More than 100 students at High Point Elementary are now getting weekly food trays, and the foundation has added needy students at Pinellas Central Elementary in Pinellas Park; Lealman and Blanton elementary schools in St. Petersburg; and Starkey Elementary in Seminole.
Nourish to Flourish and the other programs of the Beth Dillinger Foundation have succeeded because of the contributions of others. The volunteer-run group receives donations from individuals as well as companies and organizations, including Bank of America, PNC Bank and the Tampa Bay Lightning, which last month selected Kay Dillinger as the Community Hero of the year.
Bob also discovered a generous source online called Feeding Children Everywhere. Moved by the earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010, Sanford resident Don Campbell founded the charity to provide healthy meals in a single bag, which includes a mix of lentils, rice and dehydrated vegetables. Recipients add boiling water for a pot of nutritious stew that feeds six per bag.
Bags are sent to hungry people on four continents and also are delivered free to organizations like the Beth Dillinger Foundation.
In Pinellas, Goodwill Industries also has pitched in to help the children from High Point Elementary by offering organic produce from their local gardens.
While Bob oversees Nourish to Flourish, Kay is dedicated to helping young girls build confidence and plan for a productive future. In the Pinellas County Criminal Justice Center near Largo, she has set up one of three Hope Chest closets.
"Initially, we filled the closet with all of Beth's clothes and jewelry," Kay said, "and then others began donating as well."
Now, she buys things for the closet herself. "I know the best sales in town," she said.
Kay also organizes the foundation's annual fundraiser, called "Value Me." This year the fifth annual event will feature a luncheon and fashion show May 2 at the Hilton St. Petersburg Carillon Park. Seven girls from the Pace Center will model prom-style dresses.
"We call it their prom," she said of the luncheon event. "They are picked up in limos and treated like princesses."
Twenty-five other girls from the Pace Center also will be invited to attend based on their overall school performance.
Throughout all of the foundation's efforts, the Dillingers' thoughts are never far from Beth, their striking, dark-haired daughter.
"She was a beautiful, caring and kindhearted person," her father said.
Email correspondent Elaine Markowitz at [email protected]