People visit Destin for so many reasons — weddings, family vacations or just to get a tan. But when Melinda Roberts makes her annual visit to Destin with her childhood friends, it's all about connecting with those who know and love her best.
"After our 30-year high school reunion in 2009, I just thought, life is too short to just see each other at reunions," Roberts said.
It was with that thought that she began organizing yearly trips to Destin, using her parent's condo at Chateau La Mer II Now in its fourth year, the traveling group continues to grow with a total of 10 women making the Destin pilgrimage.
Roberts, a Birmingham resident, and her friends met as adolescents while attending St. Agnes Academy, an all-girls school in Memphis, Tenn.
"There were only 69 girls in the graduating class," Roberts said. "St. Agnes instilled in us togetherness. We have a strong alumni association."
While life has scattered some of the women across the country, they've always kept a close bond.
"Thank God for technology; we're all on Facebook," said Maria Stringfellow, Memphis resident who helps house the large group in her parent's condo at Jetty East.
The group of women have been through a lot over the years, Roberts explained.
"We have been through the deaths of some of our parents, a life threatening pregnancy, a near death accident, a stroke, a heart attack and painful personal issues," she said.
But on the beach Monday evening, the women had something to celebrate on top of their 40 years of friendship.
One of their own was cancer free.
"To say that this year's beach trip will be really special is an understatement," Roberts said.
Melinda Winchester, who calls Germantown, Tenn. home, was diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2012 and after almost a year of chemotherapy and a double mastectomy, her hair is growing back, and with the help of her friends, she's beginning to feel more like herself again.
Losing her mother to lung cancer and fighting leukemia twice with her husband who is now in remission, the battle with cancer is all too familiar for Winchester. Through all of it, she said her friends have been there holding her hand.
"I've always known that God loves me, but when things like this happen you want to scream out and ask why," she said. "I never needed God more in my life."
Pointing to her friends, as her eyes welled with tears, Winchester said, "These are the hands of Jesus. I didn't go to one round of chemotherapy by myself. I've been spoiled rotten in the past eight months."
It was the annual Destin trip that gave Winchester the strength to fight.
"I thought 'If I could just get to the beach,' " she said. "I looked so forward to putting my feet in the sand. I thought about our trip and what my friends mean to me — it was therapeutic. There is a God and he put us all together."
The harsh reality Winchester pointed out is that she may not be the only one to face this battle. According to the American Cancer Society, 1 in 8 women in the U.S. will develop breast cancer during their lifetime. However, no matter what these women face in the future, they'll face it together.
"I'm the first of our group, but more than likely, I won't be the last," Winchester said. "And when that time comes I'll be there."
On the beach in front of Jetty East Monday evening, just before sunset, Winchester, decked out in pink cowboy boots, joined her friends surfside to commemorate the past eight months. Using a child's toy shovel, Winchester wrote the word "Cancer" in the sand. When the ocean wiped the sand clean again, the friends clapped and cheered.
That night, they all had dinner at Boshamps Seafood & Oyster House. Little did they know a high school friend had called ahead to the restaurant. When they sat down, they were gifted with specially made drinks — Melinda's Miracle Martini. The concoction was purple, the same color as the cancer survivor ribbon.
Winchester has been so overwhelmed by the support and love she has received that she's been playing around with the idea of writing a book. The working title?
"We've got this," she said.