For Good: Pig Jig fires up barbecue smokers for a needy cause

It began casually and simply: A backyard barbecue competition with a few friends to raise money for a good cause to benefit a buddy.

What a difference five years makes.

On Saturday, rain or shine, Tampa Pig Jig celebrates its fifth year, and is expected to draw more than 8,000 people at Curtis Hixon Park on the Tampa Riverwalk in downtown Tampa. It has arguably become of the city’s most popular and fastest-growing fall events.

Doors open at noon and close at 11 p.m. General admission tickets are $25; VIP tickets go for $125. Children under 12 are free. Dogs are welcome, but bring a leash. Tickets can be ordered in advance on the website.

“When we did our first one in 2011, we really had no plans for it to morph into something this big,” says Vince Chillura, who hosted that backyard bash and is one of the seven original founders of the festival. “It must have been the right idea at the right time. Now we’ve taken it to a whole new level.”

Fifty barbeque teams, the most ever in the Pig Jig’s short history, will be vying in the amateur smoking and grilling competition, judged by local celebrities. Several vendors will offer food and beverages for purchase. Seven bands from rock to country to Americana will provide music from the stage throughout the day and into the night.

Don’t want to miss your favorite college football team on the television? No worries. Organizers got that covered with a Jumbotron that will be broadcasting some of the top matchups. Also on tap: a cornhole tournament, games for kids and a silent auction.

While fun and good eating are at the forefront of the event, what it accomplishes is even more important.  Pig Jig has raised more than $1 million for NephCure Kidney International the only nonprofit dedicated solely to finding a cure for FSGS (Focal Segmental Glomerulosclerosis) and Nephrotic Syndrome, a rare and debilitating kidney disease. This year‘s goal is around $600,000.

“It’s so humbling,” says Will Wellman, whose FSGS diagnosis is the inspiration behind the Pig Jig. “The lengths they’ve gone to make this happen, and the community response to it, leaves me pretty awestruck.”

The men (and their wives and girlfriends) behind Pig Jig are pretty awestruck by Wellman, too. That’s why they do this.

Wellman, a 2001 graduate of Jesuit High School, had a bright future before him. After graduating from University of Florida (www.ufl.edu) in 2005, he went to the University of Kentucky to get his master’s in forestry. He was preparing for a year-long program in Kenya when he started experiencing fluid retention and stomach pains.

At first, the diagnosis of a kidney disorder seemed manageable. But the condition worsened over several months. Doctors then told him he had FSGS, a rare and incurable disease that causes permanent scarring in the kidney arteries. It affects about 5,000 people of all ages every year. Wellman was just 25.

His mother donated one of her kidneys in hopes he wouldn’t have to rely on dialysis the rest of his life. But in 50 percent of the recipients, the disease overtakes the new kidney. Wellman was one of the unlucky ones.

Several of his lifelong friends in south Tampa gave him emotional support, yet it didn’t seem enough. So after watching him battle the debilitating disease for three years, they came up with the idea to hold a fundraiser for the organization dedicated to research and finding a cure for it.

“When you’re in your 20s, you usually don’t know someone with such a serious condition. And this was a friend we had grown up with,” Chillura says. “Will is such a fighter who doesn’t let this ruin his life. Since he was doing everything he could to keep his spirits up and deal with this, we knew we had to do something.”

The men decided to capitalize on the popularity of the barbecue bandwagon. It would be a competition for grill masters who wanted to show off their prowess and a food event for those who loved to eat. And so the Pig Jig was born. 

“We pulled it together in a just a few weeks and had four teams,” Chillura recalls. The proceeds from that initial effort: $6,500. That convinced them they were on to something and needed to expand.

With the event’s rapid expansion, the men formed a nonprofit called Old Florida Federation to oversee operations. Sponsors like US AmeriBank, where Chillura is a Senior VP of commercial real estate, help offset a lot of the costs. 

“It’s been a learning experience from the onset. I would say it’s important not to have any fear if you’re going to undertake something like this,” he says. “We took a risk to help a friend, and it’s paid off.”

Chris LaFace of the construction firm Ripa and Associates, another major sponsor, credits the Pig Jig’s success to its “homegrown appeal.”  Planning the event is a grass-roots effort that gets underway about 10 months in advance.

“This isn’t a big company that comes to town to set up an event. We’re local guys and we’re all volunteers. Nobody is getting paid to do this,” LaFace says. “That’s another way to keep costs down. People want to support an effort like that. You come out to this and you’re going to run into neighbors and friends.”

Having a personal connection to someone who could ultimately benefit from funds raised for NephCure Kidney International makes it even more special, LaFace says.

“Will is a good, genuine person. He doesn’t want this to be about him,” he says. “But when you get to know him, you want to do everything you can to find a cure for this disease.”

Wellman, 32, isn’t letting FSGS dictate how he lives his life. A few years after he got his diagnosis, he went to Princeton University to earn a second master’s in divinity. He now works for Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church, heading up its adult education program. In his spare time, he’s the founding editor of the nonprofit EcoTheo Review, an online publication with a mission to enliven faith and ecological communities through writing, arts and education.

“I’m a bit of a nerd,” he admits, laughing. “I found a way to combine both of my passions.”

How does he balance the rigors of his medical condition with living a normal life? For starters, he goes to dialysis three times a week at night, hooked up to the lifesaving machine from about 6:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. He uses that time to catch up his reading, editing, emails and a short nap. And to ward off feeling sluggish and tired, he adheres to a restricted diet and has a regime of running, working out and kayaking.

“If I’m in good physical shape, I feel good. Dialysis is hard on your body and your heart, especially when it’s long-term,” Wellman says. “So keeping physically fit is the best thing you can do for yourself.”

He doesn’t think too far into the future about his disease. Wellman calls himself a “patient optimist” and hopes for the gift of another kidney one day – once they discover how to prevent it from getting afflicted with FSGS. Knowing that his friends and this community are playing a role in funding research to possibly make that happen is “little overwhelming.”

One thing he doesn’t do is wonder  “Why me, God?” That is nothing but bad theology, he says. Instead, he is grateful that God has met him at his suffering and given him hope and courage to deal with his disease.

“I prefer to focus on all the good in my life,” he says. “God’s grace is everywhere around me. The Pig Jig is just one example. So I’m actually a very blessed person.”

Read more articles by Michelle Bearden.

Michelle Bearden is a feature writer at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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