Maybe you're on a diet; maybe you left your billfold at home. Dixie Benschoter is more interested in sales than stories. Don't expect her to linger when she realizes you're not her customer today.
Dixie, 70, talks fast and walks faster, her sandals snick-snicking down the halls of Lakeshore Villas Health Care Center. People flag her with dollar bills, knowing the basket she carries is filled with homemade brownies. She exudes the confidence of a sales lady who knows her product is popular and bound to sell out.
She won't keep a dime.
Known throughout the Lutz area as "The Brownie Lady," Dixie can't count how many thousands of brownies she's baked in her homey kitchen since her mother, Bertie Mae Martin, moved into the long-term care facility in 1999. Bertie Mae died eight years later, but her daughter keeps the brownies baking for a variety of worthy causes.
It all started as a way to improve care for her beloved mother, her best friend. Dixie was an exhausted caregiver, putting in hours at work in the elections office of Hillsborough County, visiting her mother three times a day and taking care of her own family. She began her day at 6:15 a.m. at the nursing home and finished it there at 10 p.m.
She loved her mother, and this is what a good daughter does.
Lakeshore Villas was a nice place for Bertie Mae, but Dixie knew no nursing home is perfect. She wanted a way to make sure her mother was taken care of when she couldn't be there, and so she started selling 50-cent brownies to the staff, residents and visitors for the home's "On the Spot" program. When staff members were observed doing a good job, their names were entered in a drawing for dozens of donated $20 bills. The brownie sales raised $8,000 through the years.
Care improved, most certainly for Bertie Mae.
Dixie keeps her brownie recipe close, but says she buys ingredients, with her own money, in bulk from Sam's Club. Extra-large eggs are a key, but that's as far as she'll go. A girl has to keep her secrets.
Dixie, who hails from Georgia and has the drawl to prove it, also helped establish a family council at the facility. Even after her mother's death, she remained on the council to help other families fight for excellent care and navigate the laws and responsibilities of long-term care homes.
That's how she learned the scent of her brownies had wafted into the pediatric ward of the facility, where 15 medically fragile children live.
Laura Bilotta, pediatric unit manager, asked for help. She had dreams of things that could enrich the lives of the children, most of whom are on ventilators. A swing. A television. A place where the children could feel fresh air on their faces and have a chance to bond with their parents.
Dixie got to baking.
A scrubby, sun-baked area behind the pediatric unit blossomed with flowers and greenery Dixie bought and planted with her brownie money. The treats also funded an outside swing and a soothing glider on a back porch. A bird bath, angel statues and wind chimes decorate the spot.
She bought a colorful soft mat for a common area inside, allowing the children to stretch out on the floor.
Dixie kept churning out the brownies, slicing them in perfect squares with a pizza cutter to save time. Baskets were placed at her hair cutter's shop, her dentist's office, a restaurant where she and her husband, Bill, go for Friday breakfast, and at a friend's business. One man bought all the brownies in the basket and after learning of the newest goal — a television with surround sound for the sensory-impaired children — he bought a 50-inch flat screen with theater-quality speakers and had it installed in time for Christmas.
Brownie money also went to the family of a Tampa police officer killed in the line of duty, a 12-year-old boy with leukemia, the family of an ill firefighter, and fundraisers at Learning Gate Community School, where she volunteers in the lunchroom once a week. The baking and volunteering went on even when Dixie's right arm was recently in a cast.
Cheryl Gagnon, director of nursing at Lakeshore Villas, calls Dixie the heart of the place.
Registered nurse Bilotta calls her a dynamo who works magic.
Dixie says she's just a devoted daughter whose brownie sales would make her mama proud.