By LINDA CHION KENNEY
In football, a lineman’s duty is to block interference and aid success moving forward, which in the same vein is what brought Tampa Bay Buccaneer Shaquil “Shaq” Barrett to A Kid’s Place of Tampa Bay on Jan. 24.
Barrett, an outside linebacker, brought with him a bounty of new athletic shoes in all sizes and colors for children in temporary residence at A Kid’s Place of Tampa Bay, a shelter from the storm for abused, abandoned and neglected children.
“It means a lot to me to be here,” Barrett said, about a day of fun, food, games, giveaways and activities run in partnership with United Healthcare. “There’s a lot of people out in this community who care and want to help kids succeed. They’re going through stuff that kids shouldn’t have to be going through, and just to give them that little break from that trauma, to come down here and have fun, hang out and play some games, I’m just glad we’re able to be here.”
A Kid’s Place stands in testament to the unrelenting drive of former Hillsborough County Commissioner Dottie Berger MacKinnon, who worked tirelessly to secure the land, funding and community support that brought the residential shelter to fruition. She answered the call of judges who said they needed a safe, stable and home-like situation to shelter children from a volatile home life until decisions about their residency could be determined through the courts.
“Our intent is to keep brothers and sisters together, instead of splitting children up, to avoid a double trauma,” said Mary Dozier, program operations supervisor. “I would hope that while they are here that they will learn there are good people in this world, and there are people who care.”
Dozier speaks highly of MacKinnon, who died in 2013 at age 71. A Kid’s Place opened with two residential houses and now with five is able to accommodate up to 60 children, ages 0 to 18, said Brad Gregory, the shelter’s chief executive officer.
“We’ve helped thousands of children and their families, and I think Dottie would be really, really proud of what she created and what we’ve taken and been able to do,” Gregory said. “We have not changed our services, our program, our mission.
Everything is the same. We’re just doing more of it, and we’re trying to do it better.”
Gregory said the people who work at A Kid’s Place are driven to make an impact.
“When you get removed from your home, that’s very traumatic.” Gregory said. “And when you come here and have to possibly go to a brand-new school, our job is to create an environment where you can feel loved and nurtured and normal.”
Barrett said in looking for a community cause to support, he visited A Kid’s Place with his wife, Jordanna, who grew up in the foster care system herself.
“Having her as that background to inform me on what foster kids go through when the system isn’t working the right way, it’s good to have that information,” Barrett said. “That’s why we’re out here. We’re trying to find ways to help make the system a little better and help make for the kids, whatever we can, easier and better. I’m just happy that my wife had the heart for it. She had a vision for it, she shared it with me, I have a heart for kids, so I was all aboard.”
After the children received their box of shoes, Barrett engaged with these kids and with adults, signed autographs and answered questions about his formative years.
“As a kid playing sports, it wasn’t necessarily an outlet at first, because I kind of didn’t want to be going,” Barrett said. “It was so hard and it was so hot, out there running always and I had to lose weight. But my mom always made me stick with it.”
Once he realized he was good at football, wrestling and baseball, Barrett said sports did become an outlet, “and it was something that I enjoyed doing, and I wanted to keep going.”
He stands today as a proud member of the National Football League, never realizing at an early age that he would be that person.
“I never did,” said Barrett, who grew up in Baltimore. “But it was always my dream to be the quote, unquote neighborhood hero. I always wanted to come back and be able to provide to people and help my community out, whatever community I’m in. It feels good to be that person now.”
Barrett broke into a wide grin when asked about the significance of giving each child a pair of shoes.
“As a kid, a new pair of sneakers was everything,” Barrett said. “Growing up, we always got new shoes for all the big holidays, and it meant a lot to us. So, if it means a portion of what it meant to me, to them, then I’m really appreciative of the opportunity to be here.”
A Kid’s Place of Tampa Bay is in Brandon, at 1715 Lithia Pinecrest Drive. For information on services and ways to give, visit www.akidsplacetb.org/ or call 813-381-3839.