Vera Irene Dingman, who with her husband founded the venerable Sunshine Acres Children’s Home in Mesa, died Tuesday. She was 94.
Dingman, known as Aunt Vera, had been ill for several months and lapsed into a coma last week, the day after her July 12 birthday and just hours after the last of her four children arrived at her bedside, daughter Carol Whitworth said.
"It’s hard," Whitworth said, "but she was ready to go."
Vera and Jim Dingman moved with their three boys into an abandoned boarding school on 125 acres of desert scrub 10 miles north of Mesa, opening the home for abused and neglected children in 1954 with a license to house 10 children. Since then, Sunshine Acres has taken in nearly 1,500 children, most living there for free.
"They’re only held here by love. We have no fences," Dingman told the Tribune last year. "But for the first time in their life, they feel secure. They aren’t scared that somebody is going to take them away."
Over five decades of service to children in the East Valley, she never took a salary and helped her husband run the sprawling campus entirely on unsolicited donations.
After Jim Dingman died in 1980 and the day-to-day operations fell to Whitworth and her husband, Aunt Vera delighted in touring visitors around in her golf cart, holding daily devotionals with the children and rising before to dawn to write dozens of thank-you notes.
She also worked hard to stay in touch with grown children who had moved out.
"When I was in Vietnam, I always knew I could count on a letter from mom," said Bob Bice, who came to Sunshine Acres in 1955 when he was 10. "She always had this sense of knowing when one of the kids needed a hug."
Aunt Vera stopped attending church services and writing thank-you letters a few months ago, and had been receiving hospice care in recent weeks. Still, she insisted on meeting each child who came to the home, now licensed to care for 74 children in seven separate residences. Another girls’ dormitory is under construction.
Whitworth said the children delighted Aunt Vera by coming over to sing "Happy Birthday" last week.
In addition to Whitworth, survivors include daughter Priscilla Kish, sons Rolland and Charles, 14 grandchildren, 25 great grandchildren, five great great grandchildren and the hundreds of children and adults who passed through Sunshine Acres.
• Visitation for Vera Dingman will be 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday in the chapel at Sunshine Acres Children’s Home, 3405 N. Higley Road, Mesa. A funeral service is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at Living Word Bible Church, 3520 E. Brown Road. Memorial contributions may be made to the home. Call (480) 832-2540 for information.