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West Jordan Journal

Things heat up with chili cook-off to battle multiple sclerosis

May 07, 2018 02:17PM ● By City Journals Staff

An assortment of chilies and desserts bring neighbors together to raise funds and awareness about MS. (Rebecca Hunter Payne)

By Keyra Kristoffersen | [email protected]

When Suzanne Hunter was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2004, her family rallied around her in support, especially when her health declined rapidly.

“It was hard because there were always things that she had issues (with)," said Rebecca Payne, Hunter's older sister. "Every day's a struggle, but she still does it."

With the diagnosis, one of the first things the family did was become involved with the National MS Society. Family members first participated in walks with a team that grew every year in support of Hunter and others suffering from the same disease.

"It started with our family, and then at our last MS Walk, we had at least 50 people," said Payne. The next MS walk was slated to take place April 28 at Veterans Memorial Park in West Jordan.

Three years ago, their efforts to help grew to include small fundraisers such as garage sales and selling candy bars to raise awareness and money for help and research. From there, the idea of a chili cook-off evolved thanks to a family penchant for cooking and a chili-cook off that already existed in the parents’ neighborhood. 

"The first one was amazing," said Payne. "It was the biggest fundraiser that we had done."

The cook-off has been so successful that the tradition has continued and is now in its third year, growing through word of mouth and social media advertising. The cook-off is held every year in Payne's house, first with five chilies then 10, and this year 12 were entered along with assorted desserts. Entrants are charged a minimal fee to have their food judged, and guests pay $3 to try as many of the chilies and desserts as they want, voting for favorites at the end of the evening. First, second and third place are awarded with certificates and prizes in each area after the voting has closed. The money raised is donated to the National MS Society.

Along with providing her house as the location, Payne said she's in charge of delegating to her sisters and making sure there's enough space for adults and children, enough people invited and enough food to feed everyone. She said this will likely be the last year the cook-off is held at her house, though, because the interest has grown beyond what it can hold, so they're looking for a facility that can accommodate them in the future. The first year, there were only about 15 adults who attended plus children. The second year, there were 30 guests.

The years since Hunter was first diagnosed have been a roller coaster ride of adjustment as her health steadily declined. She began using a cane then a walker and finally a wheelchair for two years. It took a toll on her husband and three children, but Payne said they really stepped up, calling them Hunter's saving grace.

Hunter has recently been in the news. Thanks to some new breakthrough medications for MS patients, she has been able to leave her wheelchair behind and finally walk again with help from a cane which the family calls amazing.

"It's just such a crippling disease," said Payne, about her sister's good days and difficult days with seizures and getting her muscles and joints to move and function. "The MS Society had been amazing and so have her doctors with all the new medications coming out throughout the years."

Along with the free MS Walks that take place, the Payne family and team organized a Paint Night April 14 and possibly a Pumpkin Ball in the future because orange is the color of MS awareness. With the help of sponsors and donations, Payne said they would like to one day become a nonprofit, but for now, they're happy to be a group helping win against multiple sclerosis.