Pinellas Park firefighters, from left, Brian Fazekas, Nick DelGrosso and Chris Huffman get ready for this year’s chili cook-off.
PINELLAS PARK – Fourteen years ago, the Pinellas Park Firefighters decided they wanted to raise money to help the Muscular Dystrophy Association and the city’s annual Chili Blaze competition was born.
“I would never have believed we would have drawn as many people as we did,” said firefighter Nick DelGrosso, one of the event’s original organizers. “I asked, ‘What are we going to do with 300 gallons of chili?’ And we were out of it in 20 minutes.”
The event has grown every year since it began in 1999, DelGrosso said, and last year attracted about 8,000 people to England Brothers Park, 5010 81st Ave. N. Even more attendees – close to 10,000 – are expected at this year’s event, which is planned for Friday, March 15, 6 p.m.
It was not by chance that the Pinellas Park Firefighters decided to help the MDA. Nationally, the firefighters’ union has been a longtime supporter of the cause, contributing annually to the Jerry Lewis telethon. DelGrosso says helping the MDA gives the firefighters a great deal of satisfaction.
“We’ve been able to meet a lot of these families,” he said. “It is a great cause. We help support a camp for the kids and we cook for them. We help supply wheelchairs and other things that they need. We try to give them as normal a life as any other kid.”
Among the local families that the firefighters have helped are the Groothoffs of Pinellas Park. Dawn Groothoff, 42, and her two sons, Shane, 21, and Justin, 15, all have muscular dystrophy.
“[The firefighters] are awesome,” said Dawn Groothoff. “It is unbelievable and amazing what they do. We’ve known the firefighters for so long. They dedicate so much time and they put a lot into it.”
Groothoff now spends much of her day in a wheelchair. Both of her sons are still able to walk.
“I can walk some, but I use a wheelchair,” she said. “Justin coaches football and Shane works at the Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market.”
She says muscular dystrophy is a progressive disease and it affects her family’s everyday life.
“My hands are getting bad now,” she said. “And Justin has asthma and MD (muscular dystrophy) affects that because the organ muscles are weakening. There are over 40 kinds of MD, some are terminal, others you would never know anything is wrong. Some people just get tired”
Muscular dystrophy is a genetic disease. Groothoff’s mother had it and although she could still walk at 63, she needed braces. Groothoff’s sister also has the disease.
Groothoff says the firefighters’ help often gives them a reason to continue to get up every morning.
“We get up and go on, it is normal to have a positive attitude,” she said. “We participate with the firefighters and doing the MD walk and things like that. I don’t see why anyone needs to take pity on us.”
The Chili Blaze cook-off is anything but a pity party. It is billed as a fun event to help a good cause.
“We have two large tents and they are filled with chili tables,” said DelGrosso. “For $8 you can get an arm band that allows you to sample every batch of chili in the place.”
There are three categories of contestants: firefighters, professional cooks and chefs, and members of the public. Each contestant brings between five and 10 gallons of chili.
DelGrosso says there are no cash prizes because they want all the money to go to the MDA.
“But there are trophies and most of all bragging rights for the winners,” he said.
Since 1999, the event has grown from 300 gallons of chili to 50 teams with 10 gallons of chili competing this year.
The first year of the cook-off, $5,000 was raised for the MDA.
Last year the amount raised was a whopping $25,000.
“It does the heart good to know that there are so many people out there caring,” Dawn Groothoff said.
The Chili Blaze cook-off begins at 6 p.m. on Friday, March 15, at England Brothers Park, 5010 81st Ave. N. There also will be live music, a bike show and over 40 craft vendors.