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From left to right: Bob Levine, Emily Levine, Ronne Hess, Donald HessFrom left to right: Bob Levine, Emily Levine, Ronne Hess, Donald HessMany families enjoy discussions around the dinner table on the topics of school, friends, and weekly activities.

Growing up, Emily Hess Levine remembers conversations centered on philanthropy, giving back, and how to make a difference in the community.

Emily is the daughter of Ronne and Donald Hess who, growing up in Jasper and Birmingham respectively, learned the value of paying it forward as children at their own dinner tables. Ronne’s family owned, Top Dollar Store, a successful retail chain based out of Jasper and Donald’s family owned and operated Parisian, a specialty department store chain headquartered in Birmingham for over a century. With the sale of Parisian in 1996, and their passion for philanthropy, it was a natural next step for the couple to establish the Ronne and Donald Hess Foundation. For decades the foundation, now helmed by Emily, has supported charitable causes, including the UAB Comprehensive Diabetes Center, across Alabama and beyond.

The First Diagnosis

In 2015, Ronne and Donald’s then 8-year-old grandson (Emily’s nephew) was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. That diagnosis immediately influenced their giving priorities to include diabetes research. For them, it meant fueling hope that researchers could find a functional cure for diabetes in their grandson’s lifetime.

“Supporting the UAB Comprehensive Diabetes Center (UCDC) means supporting hope. We believe in finding a cure for cancer, so why not diabetes, which affects so many Alabamians,” said Ronne. “You have to believe and support your beliefs with your finances and your activism. And that is a commitment that we have made as a family - to support diabetes research both financially and with activism because we are able to, which means we need to.”

The Second Diagnosis

In 2020, Emily and Bob Levine’s eldest daughter was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 10. While they had been giving annually to Type 1 causes in the wake of their nephew’s diagnosis, the impact of the disease on their own household turbo-charged their involvement in diabetes activism.

“Passions change over time, and diabetes was not on our radar before our nephew and our daughter were diagnosed. But perhaps if we had known more, it would have been. Our desire to support the UCDC and diabetes research may be a bit selfish with the goal of developing a cure in our daughter’s lifetime, but we also had our eyes opened and saw the critical need to improve the lives of everyone who lives with the disease,” said Emily.

Managing diabetes is a round-the-clock, minute-by-minute job for Emily and Bob and their daughter. For many with diabetes, this can lead to burnout and mental health issues. But even amidst the constant monitoring and daily adjustments, the Levines are grateful for the advances that diabetes research has brought to those living with the disease.

“Insulin pens and pumps are relatively new inventions, and the continuous glucose monitor is even more recent. We are so grateful that our daughter and our nephew have access to these diabetes management tools,” said Bob. “But we need to keep research and technology moving forward, and that is what our gifts to the UCDC will do.”

Situated in the heart of Alabama and the center of the “diabetes belt” sits the UAB Comprehensive Diabetes Center, which aims to improve the lives of those diagnosed with diabetes. Without donors like Ronne and Donald Hess and Emily and Bob Levine, the Center would not be able to discover new diabetes drugs, introduce clinical trials, or expand and publish novel diabetes research.

“Diabetes is a community,” said Ronne. “We were at a dance recital recently and saw a child on stage with a continuous glucose monitor on her arm. We immediately knew that she had Type 1 diabetes. It is one of those moments where you instantly know what they are going through and have an immediate connection.”

Emily also stresses the importance of the other critical need in promoting diabetes research: advocacy. Her daughter was recently accepted into the JDRF’s Children’s Congress and will travel to Washington, DC to meet with members of Congress and serve as a champion to inspire others to fund and support diabetes research and insulin affordability.

“We have to get on all sides of the equation. If you are able to give, I encourage you to give. If you are able to advocate, then advocate. Whatever it is that you can do to help advance curative therapies for a disease that affects so many, do it.”

For those considering supporting the UCDC, Emily has a message:

“We want to support amazing healthcare here in Birmingham, Alabama so that our city and community can continue to grow and inspire,” said Emily. “We hope the cure for diabetes is not far away. Why shouldn’t the UCDC here in Birmingham be a vital part of that cure?”