Member Spotlight: PANDA

Integral to The Scout Guide Phoenix & Scottsdale’s mission is telling the stories behind the small businesses Scouted in each Volume. The story begins in print and continues online, after all. As you peruse Volume 2, we are thrilled to continue our story-telling mission with Member Spotlights.

Founders Robyn Debell and Penny Gunning. Photographed by Allison Tyler Jones.

Since its founding, The Phoenix Women’s Board of the Steele Children’s Research Center (affectionately known as PANDA) has been rooted in the community. In fact, the inception of both Steele Children’s and PANDA can be traced to the power of connection between friends and neighbors.

The decades-long success of PANDA can also be attributed to the power of the community, from children to their grandparents. And PANDA has demonstrated a unique ability to include every generation in pursuit of a common goal: discovering treatments and cures for devastating childhood diseases. In over 24 years, PANDA has raised over $26 million directly supporting cutting-edge research and treatments that have saved countless young lives in Arizona and beyond.

In anticipation of one of our favorite events of the year, we chatted with PANDA about their roots, mission, and what to expect at this year’s Daydreamers & Believers Fashion Show & Luncheon.

TSG Phoenix & Scottsdale: As always, we’re looking forward to this year’s Fashion Show & Luncheon. But before diving into the details on what has become one of the Valley’s favorite events, let’s chat about the beginnings of PANDA. Where does the story begin?
PANDA: The PANDA story begins in the 1980’s in Tucson, AZ. Louise Thomas, a neighbor and friend of PANDA Co-founder Robyn DeBell was a young mother with a 9 year old son, Michael. Michael was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and passed away –  despite state of the art medical treatments. Louise vowed to start a facility that would help find the cause and cure for terrible childhood diseases, including that which took her son. The Steele Children’s Research Center was built, and recruited world-renowned physicians and staff. But, because the Steele Children’s Research Center was unknown outside of Tucson, its reach was limited and its funding stretched. When, after moving to Phoenix and meeting Penny Gunning, the two started scheming on how to bring Steele Children’s to Phoenix.

TSG Phoenix & Scottsdale: What did Robyn and Penny come up with?
PANDA: The two brainstormed for years in an attempt to create a project that would involve several generations. It was Penny who presented the idea of a children’s fashion show. Thirty-five women served on the first board that chaired the first fashion show and, thus, Phoenix Women’s Board of the Steal Children’s Research Center and the fashion show were born.

TSG Phoenix & Scottsdale: Where did the name “PANDA” come from?
PANDA: It’s an affectionate nickname for Phoenix Women’s Board of the Steele Children’s Research Center that comes from the acronym for “People Acting Now Discover Answers.”

PANDA 2023 Board Chairs & President. Photographed by Allison Tyler Jones Photography L to R: Rachel Troyan, Chandra Petelin, Courtney Gaintner (President), Candace Bianco & Teri Bockting.

TSG Phoenix & Scottsdale: Can you put into perspective the impact PANDA has had on supporting discovery processes that lead to improved treatments and cures for devastating childhood diseases?
PANDA: To date, our annual children’s fashion show, year-round fundraising campaigns and community events have contributed over $26 million to Steele Children’s Research Center.

TSG Phoenix & Scottsdale: While the funds PANDA has raised are staggeringly impressive, can you put this in non-financial terms?
PANDA: If Michael Thomas, the initial inspiration for both Steele Children’s and PANDA, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma today, the Steele Children’s Research Center could treat his disease, and quite possibly he would be alive and still with us today. This passion and determination is what drives our purpose and the PANDA story forward every day.

TSG Phoenix & Scottsdale: PANDA works closely with the director of Steele Children’s Research Center. Tell us about Dr. Ghishan.
PANDA: Dr. Fayez Ghishan has been the director of Steele Children’s for over 25 years, and has led remarkable discoveries and work. Born in Jordan as the oldest of nine children, Dr. Ghishan credits his mother with instilling in him a desire to pursue medicine. When he was 16 years old, Dr. Ghishan left home with only $30 to his name and a grand ambition to become a doctor. From Dr. Ghishan’s early experiences, he realized most children in the world were dying of diarrheal diseases, which fueled him on his path to become a pediatric gastroenterologist. Dr. Ghishan has made it his life’s work to transform the lives of as many children as possible and put an end to childhood suffering. Today, he is internationally recognized for his research in pediatric gastroenterology and nutrition and is a passionate advocate for children’s health. As a physician-researcher, he has received two MERIT awards from the National Institutes of Health,
 a distinction achieved by less than 1% of scientists in the U.S.

Photographed by Carrie Evans Photography.

TSG Phoenix & Scottsdale: Before talking about your main fundraising event, it’s important that we touch on the many projects PANDA spearheads throughout the year…
PANDA: It was important to our founders to develop a project that would involve multiple generations — from grandparents to children — and we’ve built upon this idea with the Fashion Show, but also Lemonade Stand Day and PANDA Prowl & Block Party. Both are informed by our tradition of “children helping children” and offer family-friendly ways to inspire the next generation of philanthropists and raise awareness and funds for Steele Children’s.

TSG Phoenix & Scottsdale: PANDA and its projects are rather unique in their level of community support. For example, so many of your fellow members — from Garage Boutique & Concept Store to The Good Vibe Media — partner with and/or sponsor PANDA throughout the year.
PANDA: The strong and unique partnership between the PANDA members and the researchers and physicians at the Steele Children’s Research Center has made it possible for us to embody our name, People Acting Now Discovering Answers. Ultimately, it’s a testament to the powerful work Steele Children’s Research Center accomplishes.

Photographed by Carl Schultz.

TSG Phoenix & Scottsdale: What locally-owned businesses and creatives will be supporting this year’s fashion show?
PANDA: We are fortunate to have so many local long-term sponsors and partners. Our fellow Scouted member, Garage Boutique & Concept Store, is our long-term dedicated fashion partner and, as such, has dressed our models for many years. And Volume 2’s The Good Vibe Media will be providing video production. We are also so thrilled to include fellow members urbAna and Amy Atelier alongside 54 other PANDA Friends. We’re also looking forward to Allison Tyler Jones photographing our fashion show models and board chair, as she does every year!

TSG Phoenix & Scottsdale: Let’s talk about the event. What is this year’s theme?
PANDA: The 2023 theme is Daydream Believers, inspired by a celebration of childhood and the magic that happens when our community comes together to give kids a healthy start in life.

TSG Phoenix & Scottsdale: What should attendees expect from the Daydream Believer’s Fashion Show & Luncheon?
PANDA: This year’s luncheon will be hosted at the Arizona Biltmore. We’ll start off with a silent auction and happy hour, enjoy lunch, and delight in the fashion show styled by Garage Boutique & Concept Store. Attendees should expect great styles and great raffle prizes, including a diamond tennis necklace, a year of shopping experiences at Amy Atelier MAN Atelier, Vegas Formula 1 tickets, Napa getaways, and more!

TSG Phoenix & Scottsdale: What will this year’s Fashion Show & Luncheon fund?
PANDA: In addition to providing funding for specific technology that will advance Steele Children’s Research Center’s capabilities, we are focusing on our “First 1,000 Days Pediatric Project.” This initiative is two fold: translational research into pediatric nutrition and research to advance technology in congenital heart disease, which impacts nearly 1 in 100 babies. By funding translational research, we move basic science discoveries quickly and efficiently into practice.

TSG Phoenix & Scottsdale: How can readers get involved and give back?
PANDA: While our event is sold out, we invite everyone to join us for our silent auction, which will be available online, and participate in our annual events. As science is always advancing, we graciously accept donations year-round.

Learn more about PANDA and how to support their mission at and follow along with them on Instagram for the latest updates.

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