PANDA Board Members Rachel Troyan, President Courtney Gaintner, Candace Bianco, Co-founder Penny Gunning, Co-founder Robyn DeBell, Chandra Petelin and Teri Bockting.


PANDA and Steele Children’s Research Center are here to help

Eosinophilic gastroenteritis (EoG) affects roughly 10 in 100,000 people. It is more common in females, and those with food allergies are more susceptible. 

Three-year-old Arcadia tot Lana Cohen was diagnosed with EoG in October 2021. The rare autoimmune disease causes red blood cells to incorrectly line the digestive tract, causing pain, vomiting, gagging, coughing and choking.  

But this isn’t a story about EoG. It’s a story of hope, help and advocacy thanks to the women of PANDA (People Acting Now Discover Answers) and the folks at Steele Children’s Research Center (SCRC). 

 Before her diagnosis, Lana and her parents had been to multiple doctors, learned of various issues (including food allergies) and had been scared and frustrated with not knowing how to help their daughter when it came to eating – and keeping down – meals. 

 At a loss, and with doctors unable to pinpoint what was wrong, Lana’s mom Dara Silverstein reached out to a friend – and member of PANDA – who encouraged Dara to reach out to SCRC.

 In Tucson, SCRC is the University of Arizona’s Department of Pediatrics research division. The physician-scientists and researchers are devoted to improving children’s health through scientific, translational and clinical research in areas such as autism, autoimmune disorders, cancer and blood diseases, diabetes, GI disorders and lung disease, to name a few.

 Dr. Fayez Ghishan, head researcher at SCRC, diagnosed Lana and put her on a successful treatment plan. 

 “Dr. Ghishan provides quarterly endoscopies of Lana’s GI and takes biopsies of her esophagus and stomach to see the status of her disease. He oversees her diet and medication,” Silverstein said. “The moment we became a patient of Dr. Ghishan’s, our daughter’s quality of life immediately changed. We are forever grateful for having this research team in our family’s orbit.” 

SCRC was born out of tragedy. When her 9-year-old son Michael passed away from non-Hodgkin lymphoma, Louise Thomas dedicated her life to starting a facility that would help find the cause and cure for childhood diseases. The center officially opened in 1992, with Louise as the founding board member. SCRC is the facility that helped create PANDA.

 When Co-founder Robyn DeBell and her family moved from Tucson to Phoenix, she met Penny Gunning (another co-founder), and the two discussed what it would take to expand SCRC to reach Phoenix and beyond. The women finally settled on a project, the Children Helping Children Fashion Show, and thus PANDA was created.  

 Officially, the organization is known as a Phoenix-based women’s philanthropy board that focuses on raising awareness and funds to benefit research for childhood diseases. 

 “It’s a group of 200 of the strongest, most passionate, and selfless women: business owners, educators, doctors, lawyers, and mothers all with the same focused determination to ensure that every kid has the childhood they deserve,” Silverstein said. 

According to member Lori MacLeod, the board is 100 percent made-up of volunteers. There are no paid staff, salaries or executives. Every board member commits to a minimum five-year term. 

PANDA holds several fundraising events throughout the year, like the PANDA Prowl, a family fun-run event in January, and Lemonade Stand Day, where children across the Valley set up lemonade stands in March to raise funds.  

Silverstein said that the organization is most known for its Children Helping Children Fashion Show, which showcases local kids and Steele patients that walk the runway to help raise funds. Last year, they raised more than $4 million.

 Every year, PANDA votes to fundraise for one specific issue that affects children. According to Silverstein, the “First 1,000 Days of Life Project” focuses on seven angles of research to investigate the critical role nutrition plays during the first 1,000 days of life (pregnancy through three years old). 

Lana will walk in the fashion show, happening April 8 at the Arizona Biltmore, with her big brothers to help raise more awareness about her disease and to help others.

 “I will say that Lana – and any patient at Steele – directly benefits from being a patient at a hospital at the forefront of a wide range of research. Lana will have access to new medicine and be part of research studies that can change her quality of life,” Silverstein said. “PANDA is a bridge between children, doctors and scientists. They look for the greater need and help get the funds to make that research possible.”