By B.C. Manion
On the surface, they look like any group of young professionals meeting after work to catch up on things and have a drink or two.
But this collection of women, gathered at The Vine Restaurant and Wine Bar in Lutz, had a much more meaningful agenda. They’re engaged in a quest to help conquer breast cancer.
As the early arrivals chatted, a woman flashing a megawatt smile came bounding into the restaurant.
It was Darby Steadman, a Lake Magdalene woman who has refused to shed her upbeat attitude despite her diagnosis of Stage IV metastatic breast cancer.
She doesn’t know how much time she has left on this earth, but she is determined to make the most of it.
As she joined her friends, the focus wasn’t on Steadman. They were gathered to work out details for a benefit on March 19-20 at the Emerald Greens Country Club to raise funds for the Driving Miss Darby Foundation
The nonprofit foundation aims to “reduce the burdens that trial patients face during their treatment commitment by defraying the costs associated with travel, lodging and medical expenses,” according to the foundation’s website.
The foundation also provides funding for clinical trials.
Steadman and some of her friends launched the foundation when she was living in Baltimore three years ago.
She was in a breast cancer vaccine trial under the direction of Dr. Leisha Emens at Johns Hopkins.
That experience opened Steadman’s eyes into how clinical trials work.
“Clinical trial researchers are almost like missionaries. They have to go out and get their own funding,” she said.
Steadman was lucky. She only lived about 20 minutes away from the clinical site and could drive herself back and forth.
Others weren’t as fortunate. They were coming from all over the country and were paying for their own meals, lodging and travel. Astounded and horrified, she and some friends decided to try to do something about it. They formed a foundation.
“When we first started doing “Driving Miss Darby,” actually we wanted to get them from the airport to the hospital and we wanted to give them a bag of goodies. That’s how it all started. And then, it just got really big,” Steadman said.
As her efforts began in Baltimore, other efforts were getting off the ground in Tampa.
“It kind of started with the love of a group of classmates of Darby’s from Chamberlain High,” said Jennifer Juranko, who lives in Wesley Chapel.
“We, here in Tampa, wanted to do something to show support,” Juranko said. A golf tournament, suggested by their friend Joey Larson, was born.
They put the word out to their friends. About 120 golfers played in the tournament and about 200 people attended the evening benefit.
“It kind of has just blossomed and grown each year,” Juranko said.
Organizing the event is much like tracking down money for research: It requires a certain amount of tenacity, creativity and energy, too.
“I think originally, it was, “Hey, let’s get some friends together and let’s raise some money for Darby,” Steadman said.
“And then it turned into, “Wow, Darby has been doing some stuff with clinical trials and this is actually going to turn into something bigger than we thought.”
In its three years of existence, the foundation has raised $100,000. Of that, $60,000 has gone to Johns Hopkins to support the clinical trial, including $25,000 to be used strictly for the vaccine.
The other $40,000 is being used to support clinical trial participants.
“We have now sponsored six girls through the clinical trial,” Steadman said. There also are a dozen applications out.
When she met with the group last week, she told them: “I was just on the phone with a young woman today. It just broke my heart. Yesterday, she sent me three e-mails in the span of about 10 minutes. Each one of them was progressively more scared: “I just got my diagnosis. I have an 8-year-old daughter. I am a principal. I shut my door. I’m freaking out. I don’t know what to do”. ”
Steadman moved back to the area with her husband, John, and their two children, 11-year-old Liam and 8-year-old Audrey, to be near family for her final years. She said she knows how lucky she is to have her dear high school friends in her corner.
“I think that it shows you just the heart of people you grew up with. It is just incredible. It’s been a humbling experience and I am definitely blessed to have each one of these girls participate,” Steadman said.
“Everybody here brings a special skill or talent to the table,” Juranko said, citing specific contributions being made by each of the women seated around the table: Lisa Pierce of Lutz; Chris Wandembergh of Lutz; Kelly Mikes of Lutz; and Michelle Horan of Original Carrollwood.
Steadman’s appreciation for their efforts was obvious, as she glanced lovingly at her friends: “I joke around, I call it the “Darby vortex” and essentially once you get in, you can’t get out.”
They all seem quite willing to hang on to her – tight.
GIVE BACK NIGHT
What: The Vine Restaurant and Wine Bar, 17667 N. Dale Mabry Highway is hosting two give back nights to benefit Driving Miss Darby Foundation (The restaurant is on the east side of North Dale Mabry Highway, just south of Van Dyke Road).
When: 4 p.m. to close March 9 and March 16
How it works: Those going to the restaurant on the give back nights and mentioning they are there to support the Driving Miss Darby Foundation will have 10 percent of the bill donated to the cause by the restaurant.
GOLF TOURNAMENT AND BENEFIT
What: The Driving Miss Darby Foundation 3rd annual Golf Tournament & Benefit
Benefit: 7 p.m. to midnight, Saturday, March 19
Golf Tournament: 11:30 a.m. registration and 1 p.m. shotgun start on Sunday, March 20
Where: Emerald Greens Golf and Country Club, Tampa
Why: To benefit the Driving Miss Darby Foundation
For event details and ticket information go to www.drivingmissdarbyfoundation.org
The Driving Miss Darby Foundation also has a page on Facebook.