Wine, Women & Fishing

Tournament brings fun to fundraising for a cure

By Hank Sforzini
Photographs provided

Linda Church first met Debbi Bunn, a middle-school math teacher, in Virginia Beach in 1993. The pair, who ran in similar circles and shared mutual acquaintances, became fast friends thanks largely to Bunn’s exuberant personality.

In 1999, while out enjoying drinks, Bunn shared the news with her best friend that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. She eventually went into remission, but the cancer returned in 2004, and Bunn passed away in April 2006 at age 49.

“When she had her recurrence, I called every morning at 8:45 to tell her I loved her,” said Church.

While Church has devoted most of her adult life to fundraising, the loss of her friend strengthened her resolve to work even harder to help find a cure for breast cancer.

Church serves as the chair and tournament director for Wine, Women and Fishing (WWF), a fishing tournament organized exclusively for women anglers that support cancer research at the Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS).

A lady angler shows off a fish at the Wine, Women & Fishing fundraiser at Chesapeake Bay, Virginia.

The tournament, held every August, is now in its 15th year under the auspices of the Chesapeake Bay Wine Classic Foundation (CBWCF), a nonprofit charitable organization dedicated to the belief that the future strength of its community is dependent on the education of its youth. Since its inception in 1991, the foundation has raised and distributed more than $8.5 million to organizations that support the youth of South Hampton Roads, Virginia, enabling thousands to pursue higher education, meaningful careers, and fulfilling lives.

While the focus of CBWCF is education-based nonprofits, the foundation does see a link to fighting the second leading cause of cancer deaths in women.

“We believe the research and education being done at EVMS ties in well,” says Jennie Capps, CBWCF’s executive director for the past 13 years. “Besides, we’re all interested in finding a cure for breast cancer.”

Church, who has been active on the foundation’s board for 20 years and has attended its events since 1995, first discovered the tournament when it was run by another organization prior to CBWCF taking the reins in 2002. As the tournament grew under CBWCF, Church recognized the event’s potential and realized Capps, the foundation’s only paid employee, needed more help. In 2012, Church lobbied the board of directors to create a formal committee for the tournament. They asked her to chair it and serve as tournament director, and she hasn’t looked back.

Last year, the tournament raised $85,000 for EVMS. This year, Church’s goal is $100,000.

“I’m a professional beggar,” laughs Church. But she is quick to point out, even though the tournament is a lot of fun, it is about a serious cause — by the end of 2017, over 250,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in women.

Church believes the event allows people to participate on some level and help those in their community — whether it be donating a silent auction item, purchasing a ticket or donating money, everyone can help. For Church, the tournament is also a way to keep her best friend’s name and spirit alive: A portion of the proceeds raised by WWF goes in Bunn’s name to EVMS.

“She is laser-focused on raising money for breast cancer research,” Capps said. “If your phone’s ringing and it’s Linda, don’t answer unless you’re ready to donate because that’s why she’s calling you.”

To date, the event has raised almost $600,000 for breast cancer research at EVMS’ Leroy T. Canoles Jr. Cancer Research Center. The center is dedicated to translational research, an interdisciplinary approach to facilitate bench-to-bedside treatment — the process by which research results from a laboratory are directly used to develop new ways to treat individual patients.

“EVMS is one of the only medical schools in the country that was founded by the community, for the community, and I think that’s what is so special about this event,” said Laurie Harrison, director of community engagement for EVMS. “It’s our community coming together to fight breast cancer and fund research taking place right here in Hampton Roads.”

Everyone gathers to celebrate the awards presentations.

As the tournament has grown, so have the dollars raised, which means “a stronger breast cancer research program at EVMS,” according to Harrison. And it is important for their research to continue since breast cancer is one of the most prevalent types of cancer in Southeastern Virginia, and the state has the ninth-highest breast cancer mortality rate in the nation.

The proceeds from WWF have helped fund new research positions and purchase cutting-edge equipment used in breast cancer research, as well as other types of cancer research. Because of this, the school has been able to recruit top-notch talent to its research ranks.

“Support from Wine, Women and Fishing enables our researchers to continue to work toward finding ways to develop better diagnostic and therapeutic tools that will improve lives in Hampton Roads and beyond,” said Harrison.

While the school is certainly doing its part in the labs, it also steps up when it comes time for the tournament. Each year, close to 20 volunteers, including medical students, residents, staff, researchers, and doctors, weigh fish, help with scoring, take photos, and sell WWF merchandise and raffle tickets.

“EVMS is so helpful and appreciative,” said Capps. “They make us feel like the money we’re raising really makes a difference.”

Later this month, on Friday, August 18, the weekend’s festivities kick off with a wine dinner. The wine dinners were added in 2014 to increase revenue and incorporate more of the foundation’s wine theme into the tournament. Each year, a different vintner is featured, and in the past, winemakers with operations in California, Virginia, and France have participated. This year’s guest is Dana Gallagher, proprietor of boutique Napa Valley winery Trespass Vineyard, who also is a breast cancer survivor.

Then on Sunday, 40 sport-fishing vessels will depart from Southside Marina in Virginia Beach. Each boat will carry an all-female team of six enthusiastic participants of all ability levels, from those who have never fished to expert anglers.

Registration is $800 per team for up to six lady anglers on a boat. Each team receives an invitation to the registration party on Saturday, August 19, six tickets to the all-inclusive awards banquet on Sunday and a goody bag and t-shirt for each participant. The tournament has two prize categories: billfish, including blue and white marlin, and meat fish — tuna, dolphin, and wahoo.

Additionally, as the boats return to the marina at the end of the day, preparations begin for Crazy Crew, a contest featuring a themed show, including music and choreography, performed on the stern of each team’s boat. The winners of Crazy Crew generally receive a small gift such as a Tiffany & Co. bracelet, Coach watch or day at the spa, but according to Church, “it’s more about bragging rights.”

“Teams don’t let anyone know what their themes are — it’s top secret,” she said. “And it’s so much fun.”

Most boats’ themes focus on breast cancer and are another way to bring awareness to the cause.

Crazy Crew is one of the the highlights of the tournament, when teams dress up and perform on the stern of the boat to be judged by a panel, hopefully winning bragging rights.

While every year is an emotional experience for the survivors and those affected by breast cancer, the 2017 event will be especially poignant. This year, the foundation is holding the tournament in Cheryl McLeskey’s honor.

McLeskey has allowed the foundation to use her property for the tournament since 2007. “It was a game changer when we moved to Cheryl’s land,” said Capps. “The fishing tournament transformed thanks to her generosity. It’s a beautiful venue, there’s more space, and it allows us to give away so much more money to EVMS.”

Regrettably, McLeskey discovered a lump on December 31, was diagnosed with breast cancer in the beginning of January and began chemotherapy later that month. She recently underwent surgery and is currently recovering.

Said Church: “It has affected everyone in some way, shape or form.”

She’s had a boat captain, his eyes brimming with tears, approach her and tell her his mother died from breast cancer. People who recognize her from television interviews share how they lost a loved one. And during last year’s tournament, Church had a complete stranger sidle up to her and thank her for what she does. The woman confided to Church that she had been diagnosed with stage IV terminal pancreatic cancer, but had not yet told her family. “She said, ‘it’s too late for me, but you can help someone else.’”  E


For more information on the Chesapeake Bay Wine Classic Foundation, the Wine, Women & Fishing Tournament or to donate, visit: www.cbwc.org