Madonna Abruzzese sat down at a Brandon Chamber of Commerce meeting 18 months ago and asked Julie Duncan one simple question: "What's Dream Factory?"
Little did she know that the query would lead to complete involvement in the upstart nonprofit group. Now as president/area coordinator of the Dream Factory of Florida, Abruzzese helps her small organization grant the dreams of critically and chronically ill children, ages 3 to 18, right here in our community.
Fulfilling dreams is like answering a prayer, and Abruzzese finds herself running the organization because she answered Duncan's prayer. Over breakfast at the Brunchery, we talked about that decision and what drives her to keep going.
Pull up a chair and join us.
ERNEST: So you got involved with the Dream Factory and Julie Duncan, who founded the local chapter, but did you realize how your involvement would grow?
MADONNA: When I met Julie, I knew her husband was in the military but I didn't think her husband had retired yet. When most people are in the military they move every two years. I said, "Just out of curiosity, has John retired from the service?" She said, "No." I said, "When does he expect to move on?" She said, "Next summer." I said, "What happens to the Dream Factory when you move?" She said, "I pray daily that I'll find people to keep it open." I didn't want to see it fizzle because she left but I knew I couldn't take it on myself. So at that point, I said we need to giddy-up and find some more board members and do some dreams to get some more awareness in the community.
How did it go?
Our first dream, June of 2007, was for a girl who went to a cat sanctuary to see ligers (a breed of wild cats born from male lions and female tigers). We also sent a boy from Gibsonton to a NASCAR race to meet Carl Edwards. We also had a young man who wanted to go on a shopping spree, and we raised money so he could do that at Westfield Brandon mall. We also had another child who (wanted) a custom-made bike, and we just gave her the bike in June.
So you answered Julie's prayer. Do you ever wonder how you got so involved?
I'm sure if you asked anybody else who does the same thing, they'd have the heart to do it and their heart is never going to let them just walk away from something they really feel strongly about. Would I still like to be the executive director and not have any decisions to make for the organization and just support the area coordinator? Yeah, but as a leader I would never step away. It is challenging to be a leader of a strictly volunteer organization. I will honestly say it's been challenging to lead the group because this isn't their full-time job.
Four dreams in 18 months? You guys have accomplished a lot.
I'm very proud. Before I started with the Dream Factory, it was just Julie, her husband, John, and one other person, Alethea Goddens. I've said in the past that Julie, John and Alethea were the concrete. I stepped in when they needed the walls to go in and then other people stepped in to do the doors and windows.
What's it like to see a child have his dreams fulfilled?
For me? It's emotional to the point where I choke up realizing what I do is so important. I'm very fortunate to be blessed with healthy boys. Not many people can say when they were four months pregnant they were told they were going to have twins so they're a high-risk pregnancy and then have it go as easy as mine did. If God was going to give me twin boys, he gave me the best set. I'm gifted that way, so my boys and my husband are just as involved as I am.
DESSERT: A postscript from Ernest
The Dream Factory is searching for more kids to help, but there is a vetting process. Among other things, the group has to make sure it's the child's "dream" and not the parents' "dream."
Unlike other organizations that grant wishes, the Dream Factory is strictly volunteer and more than 90 percent of every dollar raised goes toward fulfilling dreams. Both the honorary mayor of Ruskin (Dr. Kenneth Kuchar-Haas) and the honorary mayor of Brandon (Tammy Holmberg) made the Dream Factory one of their beneficiaries.
Abruzzese is hoping to find a supportive candidate in the Riverview race. To learn more about Dream Factory of Florida, go to DreamFactoryInc.com.
Ernest Hooper also writes a column for the Tampa Bay section. Reach him at email@example.com or 226-3406.