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Members of the Pinellas County chapter of the Phi Beta Psi Sorority, including president Ronnie Bottalico, front left, at their 2018 fashion show at Innisbrook Golf Resort. The 2019 edition of the fundraiser will be held Feb. 16.

PALM HARBOR — In February 1904, the first Phi Beta Psi Sorority chapter was founded by May Eva Lied in Columbus, Ohio. The purpose of the organization, which was not college based, was “to promote fraternal relations among its members,” according to its website.

Over the ensuing years, as the number of chapters swelled, the mission of Phi Beta Psi grew to include participation in charitable endeavors, with a primary focus on raising money for cancer research; since 1973, the nonprofit has given nearly nine and a half million dollars in research grants, including $324,750 to six doctors in 2017, according to records.

The Phi Beta Psi chapter in Pinellas is led by president Ronnie Bottalico, a New Jersey native with a take-charge attitude that has served the organization well.

“We’re a non-educational sorority — we’re not a social club,” Bottalico explained during a recent conversation near her Seminole home. “Anybody over the age of 18 with good moral beliefs and ideals can join, if they want to work. We meet once a month and we do fundraisers and events throughout the year, including our big annual fashion show at Innisbrook in February. Wherever we can find a niche to raise money, we do.”

Bottalico noted most Phi Beta Psi members are cancer survivors or have lost loved ones to cancer, a subject she knows about all too well. Three years ago, she lost her husband to the deadly disease, and over the last 30 years, Bottalico has seen her son, mother, sister, sister-in-law, mother-in-law and nephew succumb to various forms of cancer.

But she said diving headfirst into the day-to-day operations of the sorority has helped her survive difficult times. “It’s been my lifesaver,” she said. “If I didn’t have this, I’d be lost.”

Phi Beta Psi now boasts 68 chapters in 11 states, including eight in Florida, according to Bottalico. But despite the organization having donated nearly $10 million dollars to hundreds of doctors over the years, she said they still struggle to get the word out.

“A lot of people don’t know about us,” she said. “It’s all by word of mouth. That’s how I found out about it, through a cousin’s friend. I think it’s because we’re such a niche group. When I go begging people for donations for our fashion show they say, ‘really, I’ve never heard of you.’ The bigger cancer charities may raise more money, but a lot of that doesn’t trickle down to individuals doing cancer research. That’s the niche we fill.”

After wrapping up recent meetings in Tarpon Springs and Largo, Bottalico said the 11 members of the Pinellas chapter are ramping up preparations for their annual luncheon, fashion show and jewelry boutique at Innisbrook Golf Resort on Saturday, Feb. 16.

Now in its 26th year, Bottalico said the event has become a major fundraising source for the sorority.

“We had 334 people attend last year and raised $5,000 for cancer research,” she said while praising Innisbrook officials for facilitating the event.

Tickets, $35, go on sale in early December. They price includes a hot meal with dessert and a fashion show filled with women wearing clothing and accessories that will be available for purchase.

“This year, we get 10 percent of every item sold,” Bottalico said. “So, I’m hoping we raise a little more money this year. I’m excited.”

While she admitted she’s unsure how much longer she will lead the Pinellas chapter, Bottalico didn’t sound like a woman who was about to give up the fight anytime soon.

“When we see the money we give to certain doctors is really producing something, it makes you realize what we’re doing is really important,” she said, citing several treatment breakthroughs made by doctors the organization has donated to. “And I have a strong desire to see this through to the end.”

For more information about the Pinellas County chapter of Phi Beta Psi Sorority, including tickets for the upcoming fashion show at Innisbrook, contact Ronnie Bottalico at 856-448-5215 or 727-368-2980 or email bottalicos@aol.com.