TAMPA — Dakota Rockwell never asked for help. He was reluctant to share all his hardships.
But after he spoke at a University of South Florida banquet for new business students and the Times ran a story about him Monday, hundreds of strangers reached out, applauding his perseverance, wanting to ease his difficult journey.
"His drive and determination is inspirational. This article should be mandatory reading for ALL high school students. It would be a lesson in gratitude," a reader from Tampa wrote.
"What a heartwarming story," a reader in St. Petersburg emailed. "Who said, 'They don't make 'em like they used to'?"
Rockwell, 20, grew up in Seminole, in poverty, not sure of who his dad was, watching his mom struggle with minimum-wage jobs. He was 13 when she got cervical cancer and took care of her as she withered away. She died the month after he started high school.
Though he received $519 a month from Social Security death benefits, his stepdad made him pay $400 for room and board. Rockwell determined he would have to make it on his own.
He started buckling down at school, working on charter fishing boats, cleaning pools, hauling antiques, doing his homework with his friend's mom. He became the first in his family to graduate high school and went on to earn an associate's degree at St. Petersburg College. This summer, he found out he had been accepted to USF — and a scholarship would help fund his degree.
"I never thought I'd even get in," Rockwell said. "Then, when I did, I had no idea how I would pay for school. I can't believe all these people want to help me."
He wanted to make sure he thanked everybody.
Someone promised to get him health and dental insurance; he can't remember the last time he saw a doctor. Someone else offered to do his income taxes for free. A builder wants to show him how to rehab houses. A radiologist offered a part-time job. A gardener said he would pay Rockwell $50 an hour to help him weed.
One grandmother wants to send him care packages; another wants to send birthday gifts. A fisherman suggested an afternoon on the water, doing what Rockwell loves most. Several young women found him on Facebook and sent phone numbers.
By Wednesday, so many people asked about sending contributions that someone created a "gofundme" account to facilitate donating online: gofundme.com/dyyy9c.
And the woman at USF who first shared his story agreed to accept checks or gift cards for him:
Dakota Rockwell c/o Lorie Briggs, USF College of Business Communications Office, 4202 E. Fowler Ave., BSN 3403, Tampa, FL 33620-5500.
Contact Lane DeGregory at (727) 893-8825 or [email protected] Follow @lanedegregory.