MANATEE -- Ron Stephens will be working the first hole Friday at University Park Country Club -- and he's doing it for deeply personal reasons.
They are Garrett, Griffin and Easton, the sons of Ron and Nancy Stephens.
Garrett died from complications of Type 1 diabetes at the age of 1. He would've been 20 last April 6.
Griffin, 18, training at Fort Benning, Ga., to be an Army Ranger, has a genetic pre-disposition to developing T1D.
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Easton is 16, a Manatee High School junior and, like
Garrett, diagnosed with T1D as an infant.
Diabetes has been the bane of the Stephens' family. That's why the country club's Sugar Shootout Golf Tournament, a benefit for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, matters so much.
"It is a life-threatening disease that has impacted us," said Stephens, a 51-year-old national account manager with Grifols, a health care manufacturer based in Raleigh, N.C. "We've experienced the worst possible consequences because of it."
Garrett's death was an unimaginable tragedy for the young couple.
Born April 6, 1993, he died April 13, 1994.
"I have yet to find the words to adequately describe the feelings of joy, pride, and love I felt every day Garrett was in my life," Stephens said. "Nor are there words that can adequately describe the feelings of absolute loss I felt and still feel."
Those feelings were channeled into a cause his wife shares passionately.
"Having lost a son the way we did, we don't want any other parents to go through what we went through," Nancy Stephens said.
They've been JDRF advocates for more than 15 years, helping raise funds for research and results to help families like theirs improve their health and quality of life.
Ron Stephens has also met several times over the years with congressional staff, lobbying for funding, and joined fundraisers from here to Naples.
"My increasing involvement was for me as much as our sons," said the former president of the JDRF Suncoast Chapter. "We needed hope. I needed to feel like I was making a difference in my sons' lives. I would feel guilty if I didn't. But it's not guilt that drives my involvement, it's results."
Among those breakthroughs:
Faster, longer-acting insulin.
Improved insulin pumps.
Continuous glucose monitors.
Stephens also cited ongoing research on an artificial pancreas that will be submitted to the Food and Drug Administration for approval before 2016.
"In the scheme of things, our actions have amounted to a drop in the research bucket," Stephens said. "However, our drops in the bucket along with other people's have freed our son, Easton, from six shots per day. He's on a pump and has a continuous glucose monitor."
The 16-year-old plays lacrosse for Manatee's club team, scuba dives, goes hunting and hits the beach with friends like any other Bradenton teenager.
"It changed my life," Easton said. "Before, I'd have to stop what I was doing, go to my mom and she'd have to draw the needle and give me a shot. It interfered with my regular routine."
While he doesn't consider himself a JDRF poster boy, he's glad to be a symbol of its successes.
"I feel I can represent them and show people how developments in science have helped," Easton said. "I feel like I can show people what it means to have diabetes and be able to live a normal life."
Though there is more work to be done in the fight against diabetes, the progress heartens his mother.
"The strides they've made have been phenomenal," Nancy Stephens said. "We're so thankful we have an organization and support group like the JDRF. It's very comforting, being at it as long as we have, to have benefited from the research."
Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix