When Robyn DeBell lived in Tucson, she witnessed her neighbor and friend, Louise Thomas, rise from the ashes after losing her young son, Michael, to a blood cancer. Louise raised the money to build the Steele Children’s Research Center. Their goal is to improve children’s health. Robyn, in turn, was inspired.
She moved to Paradise Valley with her husband, bringing along her passion for fundraising to help further the mission of the Steele Center. Robyn was introduced to Penny Gunning, a community leader with experience in nonprofit organizations. The stars aligned. After a year of planning, the two women founded PANDA. Research is their mission.
“We met and Robyn was telling me about it, and I told her I always wanted to do a children’s fashion show. It hits the parents, kids and grandparents. That’s how we got PANDA, People Acting Now Discover Answers,” says Penny.
PANDA raises millions for the Steele Center through their annual children’s fashion show and “fun-raiser” events. They’re celebrating their 21st anniversary and have always been powered by volunteers.
“We’re legal!” teases Penny. “We call ourselves silverbacks. It’s hard to believe we started it all those years ago.”
Robyn cracks jokes about passing around the bamboo wine.
“We are nothing without our women’s board of volunteers and they're incredible,” says Robyn. “They care so much, and they all have little children. The empathy that they feel for the kids they’re supporting is real. It’s hard to imagine what it’s like when your children are ill.”
They fondly refer to their volunteers as pandas. Both ladies are in an advisory capacity, yet still actively engaged in the organization.
“It’s been a real success point, the evolution of bringing in new people. Keeping younger people engaged in philanthropy and putting together this incredible show year after year,” says Robyn.
Their mission to help children goes deeper than the funding they raise. The PANDA Fashion Show’s focus is children helping children.
“We try to instill in our young models the thought that they are helping other kids who may not be healthy like they are right now,” says Robyn.
It’s not just dress-up; their actions have a real impact on other kids. Many of the models are children who have a mom on the board. Models include kids who are in remission or cured. Their first model who was a patient walked the runway in 1999. He was 6 and in remission from cancer. Fifteen years later, he walked again as a healthy, young man.
“We try to capitalize on all the positives. You have to have hope. It doesn’t work without hope,” says Penny.
Two other kid-friendly events they host are the PANDA Prowl, a fun run, and Lemonade Stand Day where kids sell drinks and cookies in their neighborhoods. Both are opportunities for PANDA models and friends to promote the Steele Children’s Research Center.
“Research has a reputation for being dry, but when we go to the Steele Children’s Research Center it helps it come alive,” says Robyn. “They show that research makes a difference and it’s not 20 years down the line, it’s a year. It’s happening now.”
The work they all do affects the health of children and adults worldwide as they make new discoveries.
“Medicine is a fast-evolving science and keeping the research going to help these kids that are suffering is critical. We can’t give up,” says Robyn.
“We really, really appreciate every single thing that people do. No gift is too small. Even someone who buys a glass of lemonade is helping,” says Penny.
Learn more at AZPanda.org.