TAMPA — In the dark hours after her police officer husband's August 2009 death, Cindy Roberts worried about how she would provide for the couple's 3-year-old son.
Then the executive director of the Gold Shield Foundation handed her a $5,000 check and promised to cover college costs for her and her child.
When Adam, now 5, enters kindergarten next fall, Tampa police Cpl. Mike Roberts' widow plans to return to school for a master's degree.
"At age 43, I will be reinventing myself with the help of the Gold Shield Foundation," she said Wednesday at the group's annual luncheon meeting.
Nearly 600 people paid tribute to area law enforcement officers and firefighters killed in the line of duty and to the man with the vision to provide financial assistance to the families left behind.
New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner created the Gold Shield Foundation in 1981 after two firefighters and a police officer lost their lives in Hillsborough County in the span of two weeks. It eventually expanded to cover seven Florida counties, including Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus.
This year proved tough for the organization. Steinbrenner died July 13 at age 80. Two weeks before, two Tampa police officers were gunned down during a traffic stop.
Executive director Joe Voskerichian choked up as he read the two officers' names from a list that now includes 30 deaths since the foundation's inception.
June 29, 2010, Voskerichian read. David Curtis. Jeffrey Kocab.
Curtis' and Roberts' widows sat at a table together. Kelly Curtis would leave the event with a stack of Yankees ball caps destined for the heads of her four young sons.
Knowing that their college tuition, books and room and board will one day be paid for by the foundation brought her peace of mind. "One less thing to worry about," she said.
Two spouses and 14 children of fallen officers and firefighters have completed college degrees with the foundation's help.
Alejandro Soto was not yet a year old when his Tampa police officer father, Porfirio Soto Jr., was killed Dec. 30, 1988. The son will graduate this month from the University of Missouri.
"I did not have the opportunity to know my father, but I know that he, as well as Mr. Steinbrenner, was a great man with a big heart," Soto wrote to the foundation. "I wish I would have had the opportunity to thank Mr. Steinbrenner in person, to shake his hand and make a pledge to him to pay it forward."
The foundation is just one of the ways the legendary owner will have a lasting impact on the bay area, said former Rays manager Lou Piniella, who also played for and managed the Yankees.
The day before the luncheon, 2,500 at-risk youths attended the annual Children's Holiday Concert that Steinbrenner started in Tampa two decades ago.
Piniella said Steinbrenner made the community better.
So did the men and women who gave their lives to keep us safe, Piniella said.
"The foundation," he said, "gives us the opportunity to honor the real heroes."
Colleen Jenkins can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3337.