She's Italian. She's an organizer and a dance instructor. She has multiple sclerosis.
Seven years ago, Darlene Trotsky and her friend Barbara Harris were attending an MS Society function when Trotsky, a self-described "loudmouth Italian" asked why there were no MS support groups in the Centennial Hills area. The reason? No one had formed such a group.
Trotsky was asked if she would like to form a group. "No," she said, "I don't think I'm strong enough to do that. I could sit around and have lunch with a few people, but that's about all." Next to Trotsky, Harris spoke up and said she'd like to have lunch, too.
And that was the start of the MS Lunch Club based in the northern Las Vegas Valley. The first lunch was a group of either six or eight women. (Trotsky and Harris can't agree on the number.) The women noted they'd like to get together with others living with MS, but not to complain and hear sad stories. They simply wanted to socialize, have fun and exchange information.
Today, Trotsky and Harris are two of more than 100 MS patients who are on the MS Lunch Club mailing list. The group meets the first Tuesday of every month (unless Tuesday is New Year's Day as it is in January, so the group will meet Jan. 8 instead). The location is Los Prados Golf and Country Club, 5150 Los Prados Circle, where the club lunch costs just $10.
"Our group started out at one table, now we have 50 or 60 reservations each month and are in the ballroom with tablecloths and cloth napkins," Trotsky said. "Los Prados has been so good to us; never have any of our guests been hustled out the door. We start at 11:30 a.m. and end at 2:30 p.m., and if some people arrive early or stay later, the club is fine with that."
The clear leader of the group is Trotsky, whose MS is generally in check, although at age 50, before she was properly diagnosed, she had been so ill she couldn't even feed herself.
See her today, and she seldom uses a cane. In fact, she's a bundle of energy. She greets longtime members by name and with a hug. She distributes packets containing a list of all MS groups and services to new members. (The club has been adding three to five new members every month.) She answers questions, asks for help from her event committee and sees that everyone has a place to sit, a name tag and ... a good time. Members range in age from 29 to 93. Most members are women, but more and more men are joining.
MS is in the room, for sure, but so is a spirit of belonging that's hard to define. In what other setting could this announcement be made about an MS fundraising event at the Foundation Room at Mandalay Bay: "You must pre-register," Trotsky said firmly into her microphone. "Your name must be on a list; you won't be let in the elevator if your name is not on the list. I don't care if you have a wheelchair, a walker or cane, nobody will feel sorry for you. Your name must be on the list!" The group laughed.
Jason Turner, son of singer Sonny Turner, former lead singer with the Platters, has been coming to MS Lunch Club lunches since its beginning. He said the lunches are uplifting because everyone is friendly.
Turner is wheelchair-bound and even has help eating the meal, but he forces himself to maintain a positive attitude, and said it's important to keep smiling. He uses paratransit buses, which he reserves in advance, to attend the gatherings. Turner also has a lunch group of his own that goes to various restaurants around town.
Cathy Kelly attended her first MS Lunch Club event at the invitation of member Kathy Chamberlain. This was not long after Oct. 8, 2008, the date on which Kelly was diagnosed with MS. She remembers the date distinctly. She said the MS Lunch Club is an occasion to get out of the house and be in a nice, safe place. "And we have door prizes at the end, I love that, " she added with a grin.
A former purchasing agent in Las Vegas, Patti Knox was very involved in MS groups some years ago, but other activities took precedence. "But in some ways, I was lonely," she said, "and now the MS Lunch Club has given me back my friends. I love my day out with them."
Within the MS community, the MS Lunch Club has become so well-known that Trotsky said: "Now people are contacting me about all kinds of local activities involving MS, and are asking me to tell our group. The pharmaceutical companies call me, too, with speakers for our lunches. In fact, we're completely booked with speakers for 2013."
And the parties? December's regular meeting was a cookie exchange. A Christmas party follows. February is an anniversary party celebrating the first MS Lunch Club. Halloween has become a special occasion as well.
Trotsky attracted attention early in life, as a 3-year-old singer and dancer. As she grew, she stayed with activities that involved movement and music.
Raised in Hazelton, Pa., Trotsky came to Las Vegas 20 years ago when her husband, Tom, had a job change. She had always worked with children and did that for a couple of years in Las Vegas before forming her own company, Kyds Tyme. She and her employees would go to day-care centers, Mommy & Me classes and home-school groups to teach dance and gymnastics.
Business was booming when 12 years ago MS began to rule her life.
"I'd always been active," Trotsky said, "and I hated to sell the business and stop working with the kids, but I was so ill I couldn't continue."
With the help of her husband and sons T.J. and Neal as well as doctors here and in California, Trotsky used her iron will and almost nonstop therapy to get better, graduating from a wheelchair to a walker and then a cane.
Four years ago, one of the parents she met when she had her business asked her to come teach a home-schooled group of children. Trotsky didn't think, with her illness, she could do it. But once she got back with the kids the energy flowed.
She is "Miss Darlene" to the children who know that their teacher sometimes has balance issues so they treat her very gingerly during the group hug at the end of every class. This will be the fourth year that Miss Darlene's group of children will be entertaining at the MS Lunch Club Christmas party.
She's a dynamo, that Darlene Trotsky, but she said she couldn't do everything without the support of her family and without other good people around her. She has a teenage assistant for her dance classes. The lunches, she noted, wouldn't happen without "my wonderful committee, Barbara Harris, Marie Castroverde, Maria Escobar, Eileen Figueroa, Gale Ponti and Margo Thayer ."
And one more thing. Trotsky has a dream. She said estimates are that more than 4,000 people in the Las Vegas Valley have MS.
"Wouldn't it be nice," she said, "if we had an MS Community Center where people could go for information, where patients could spend the whole day if they like? We could have classes there, like our balance or yoga classes.
"Every time my husband and I pass a large building for sale I tell my husband to stop the car. This would be a perfect spot for the community center! He tells me we need money for that, and I agree ... but the dream is still very much alive."