TAMPA — The first time she had cancer and fought it back, Dottie Berger MacKinnon said the neglected, abused and abandoned kids she worked so hard to help needed her to be here.
She had raised millions to build Joshua House, a haven in Lutz for children removed from their families. Then she started Friends of Joshua House Foundation to raise more.
In July, the tireless child advocate and former Hillsborough County commissioner was again diagnosed with cancer. The first time it was breast cancer. This time, it's cancer of the bile duct.
Medical options are limited. Every day is precious.
And so Tuesday night, more than 100 civic, business and political leaders surprised her at a "Dottie Love Fest" at the Tampa Yacht and Country Club.
A stunned MacKinnon buried her head in husband Sandy's shoulder, welling up at the sight of so many admirers, including four brothers who drove from Kentucky.
"We're here to build up her strength and cheer with an infusion of love and gratitude," said Cathy Unruh, one of the four organizers.
"We could have filled the Tampa Convention Center with Dottie's friends and family, but we wanted to make this an intimate affair."
As dinner of cold salmon was served, Circuit Family Court Judge Tracy Sheehan, who runs juvenile dependency court, was first to speak about her mentor.
"Community activist might be a dirty word to the Republicans in the room, so I'm crowning you Saint Dottie," Sheehan said, placing a wreath of green vines on MacKinnon's head.
Then she addressed what brought them there: "Dottie's sick, and her doctors give her a dire prognosis. To them, I say, 'You don't know St. Dottie.' She's never taken no for an answer, and she ain't about to start now."
MacKinnon, 68, laughed at that, admitting, "I scheduled surgery around early voting." Doctors want to remove 80 percent of her liver, leaving only 20 percent to compensate.
Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio recalled MacKinnon's tenacity when they served together on the County Commission, "during the years Joshua House was approved." MacKinnon's term ran from 1994 to 1998.
"If love could conquer cancer, your cancer would be gone," Iorio said.
Tampa General Hospital chief executive Ron Hytoff thanked MacKinnon for more than a decade on the hospital's board of directors, calling her "instrumental in the transformation from county hospital to a not-for-profit."
Philanthropists and friends Gene McNichols and Don Wallace added their praises. County Commissioner Rose Ferlita presented a commendation "to a former commissioner from an almost-former commissioner."
DeDe Grundel, executive director of Kids Charity Tampa Bay, lightened the mood when she shuffled in wearing shackles — "a symbol of my slave-like devotion to Dottie's causes," she quipped.
MacKinnon started the charity in 2005, the foundation that now manages A Kid's Place, a 60-bed emergency shelter in Brandon for children waiting to be placed with a foster family.
At the end of the evening. MacKinnon received a scrapbook of love notes and, addressing those gathered from the podium, made a vow.
"I will be the miracle."