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Down South Heroes

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Locals Raising Funds For St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital

By Hailey Hensgens Fleming

There are few adversaries as vile and treacherous as cancer. From the physical to the emotional toll taken, the struggle against cancer is one that hits too close to home for the majority of us. And while any cancer diagnosis is heartbreaking, it’s especially tragic when given to a young child. Thankfully, organizations like St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital serve as beacons of hope for the afflicted and exemplary individuals, like those who comprise the Down South Heroes from New Iberia, are doing everything they can to make it possible for them to do so.

The group of ladies and close friends who make up the group have been taking childhood cancer head on for the past seven years. Through their combined efforts, a plethora of fundraising events take place throughout the year by which hundreds of thousands of dollars have been raised to benefit St. Jude. In a way, success came overnight for these ladies when they made their debut back in 2012.

It all started when, at the behest of her friends, Gretchen Chauvin and her husband decided to put on their own benefit. As frequent attendees to multiple others, Chauvin knew a thing or two about what makes people tick and decided to put that knowledge to work for a cause dear to her heart. With her friends, Tammy Derouen and Desireé Sherville, on board, the three got to work planning the first annual benefit, a chili cook-off, auction and Wacky Hat Walk at the Lazy Lounge in New Iberia. “We hurried up and made some goofy fliers and spread the word. In no time we had 17 cooking teams,” recounts Chauvin. “Six weeks later we raised $28,750.”

Success was sweet and the team was instantly hooked. One benefit per year was simply not enough and they eagerly took on more. Their annual agenda soon boasted the St. Jude Kick Off Party, Spaghetti Dinner, Raffle, Huey and Possum Golf Tournament and Annual Golf Divorce Scramble, as well as their biggest event, the Lazy Lounge Chili Cook Off. “We do this all year long. We live it and breathe it,” explains Derouen. “Every week and every day we just thrive on our benefit at the end of the year. That’s the only way we can make the kind of money we make,” she adds.

Anyone who’s ever planned a fundraiser knows the immense work required and, where some may find themselves burnt out with such a busy line up, the Down South Heroes need only to remind themselves of the cause for the fuel to press on. Be it through personal experience or word of mouth, each member of the team understands the importance of the work being done at St. Jude to assist patients and their families.

“I remember hearing stories from parents about how much the hospital does, but you don’t realize it until you visit and see for yourself,” recounts Sherville. “Families don’t have to worry about coming home and taking care of a bill because their child is sick. They don’t have to worry about where they’re going to put their head on a pillow if they have to stay there for a whole month or where they’re going to get food. All that is taken care of for them.”

Following the first big benefit, the team made a trip to St. Jude Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee to personally deliver the funds raised, an outing that has since become an annual tradition. “It’s almost like our reward for the hard work we do all year long,” explains Sherville. “It’s rewarding earning the money, but it’s so much more rewarding going over there and seeing exactly where it’s going.” In addition to a tour of the facilities, the ladies participate in the St. Jude Marathon and attend the Pasta Party the night before where the top fundraising teams in the nation are recognized.

Unsurprisingly, the Down South Heroes have been among those recognized as being in the top ten family teams for the past three years and even placed 2nd in 2017. However, greater than any recognition received, the ladies enjoy seeing the smiling faces of the kids they’ve assisted and a renewed passion for their fundraising efforts. “After that first year, there was just no looking back,” Derouen states. “Once you go to that hospital you just leave a little bit of yourself there and you come home and do whatever you’ve got to do to help out,” she adds.

The Down South Heroes have been hard at work doing just that as the final benefit of the year, the 7th Annual Chili Cook Off approaches on October 27. With less than a month to go, things are quickly falling into place to make this year’s benefit the greatest one yet, a fact they quickly attribute to the help they’ve received. “We have such a great group of people helping us. If it wouldn’t be for the other 100 people who go out and hustle donations or help us sell raffle tickets this wouldn’t be possible,” remarks Sherville. “Everyone does their own part at the end of the day,” adds Derouen.

On the agenda for this year’s Chili Cook Off, is a live auction, raffle, 50/50 drawing as well as a “Pick a Prize” drawing and music by the Steve Adams “4” Piece Trio beginning at 5:30. For only ten dollars at the door, patrons can taste their fill and enjoy chili samples from 25 different cooking teams, which will begin serving to the public at noon. Early risers can have their fun, too at the Wacky Hat Poker Walk, in which participants will peruse the downtown bars in search of the best poker hand. Registration begins at 8:00 a.m. and the procession will leave the Lazy Lounge at 9:30. A “wacky hat” is not required for the walk, but is highly encouraged as it’s all done in honor of the children who lose their hair during cancer treatment. Plus, one hat artist will have their homemade hat chosen to be auctioned off - a coveted honor that has brought in more than $1,500 in the past.

From the $28,750 raised in the first annual cook off to the $115,173.33 raised at last year’s benefit, the Down South Heroes have certainly come a long way and, with the help of their community, hope to push the boundaries even further. “I have never been in a community that is as giving as New Iberia,” states Chauvin. She knows that it is, in fact, their generosity that has allowed them to put on so many fundraisers cost-free with 100 percent of the proceeds benefiting St. Jude’s Hospital. “The 1st dollar donated that day is going to St. Jude because everything is paid for before the day even starts,” states Derouen. From the portalets to the paper goods and auction items to the band, not a single penny is taken from fundraiser dollars.

While some may say their donation doesn’t count, Chauvin urges them to reconsider, “From the person who donates an hour of their time to the person who donates $20,000, we can’t do it without them.” A simple look at the numbers will tell you that even someone with a small donation can make a big impact. “One hundred dollars will provide two platelet count tests that every child has to have,” Chauvin remarks. “So even five people with $20 will get two kids platelet tests.”

It is with this mentality that the Down South Heroes press on, eager to continue their fight against childhood cancer as they represent the children from South Louisiana and put the largest dent they can into the $2.4 million needed to operate St. Jude Children’s Hospital daily. “Once you find out all the details it’s like, ‘where else would I want to donate to, but St. Jude?”’ states Sherville. “They’re saving lives and making miracles happen for families every day.”

If you’d like more information or to volunteer your time, please contact Desiree Sherville (227-6027), Gretchen Chauvin (256-6357), or Tammy Derouen (380-1525).

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