Tina Davis was famous for her radiant smile.
If ever customers at Duff’s Original Buffet in Bradenton entered in a sour mood, by the time their drinks touched their tables, Davis’ smile had changed their minds.
Even during the pandemic, with her face covered, patrons could see the joy in her eyes.
“They’d say, ‘I can tell you’re smiling up under that mask,’” she recalled laughing.
It was an inner strength that would soon be tested through the worst year of her life.
Davis, 57, grew up in Sarasota, the youngest of eight kids.
They were a close family, but by her late teens she was used to taking care of herself – eventually becoming a single mother of two sons.
By her early 30s, she had lost her mother and, a decade later, her father.
Her siblings stayed tight, and soon Davis had another family – at Duff’s.
For 20 years she worked there as a server. She relished the holidays, when the staff would dress up and decorate the place.
“They loved us there,” she said of the customers, who showed appreciation for their favorite servers at Christmastime. “Different people would come with different envelopes and give us gifts.”
“I was always in the spirit,” she added. “I used to love to get up and go to work in the morning.”
The comradery of the staff and clientele got her through tough times – including the death of her husband in 2013.
But then as the pandemic took its toll on local eateries, Duff’s closed its doors for good.
“That was heartbreaking,” she said.
For a while, Davis got by through help from unemployment benefits, then emergency rental assistance.
She hoped to find another job like Duff’s. But in the fall of 2021, a strange pain afflicted her back, making it hard to stand at church.
She had skipped her annual mammogram the year before because of the pandemic, but now she got it done. And what they found was alarming: a stage-three tumor at 5 centimeters.
The next several months were a blur of chemotherapy and surgery to remove surrounding tissue, then radiation, which burned her skin.
Family and friends through the community reached out and helped with her medical copays. Her boyfriend and her youngest son cared care for her, driving her to appointments and cooking food, while her oldest paid visits when he could.
Through it all, Davis strove to be positive, praying in her Sarasota apartment – either too fatigued or immune-compromised by her medicines to make it to church.
“I’ve been so lucky through the whole thing because it could have been worse,” she said.
Then this summer, more tragedy struck.
First, a sister with lupus died in July at age 63, followed by a 41-year-old niece from diabetes complications in August.
Davis – nursing her own health and fighting nausea – was mourning with her family while caring for a sick and hospitalized brother, who was distraught at their sister’s passing.
“When we brought him home, he cried and cried and cried,” she said.
Then in mid-October, he passed away, too, also from diabetes complications, at age 65.
Between so much loss, Davis had another weight on her mind – her rent.
The emergency rental assistance was about to run out. Davis had applied for disability back in February, but it had yet to come through.
Turning to Senior Friendship Centers, she found a beacon of help. Caseworkers there tapped into Season of Sharing and paid for a month’s rent – a little more than $900 – to carry her over until disability her kicks in.
For Davis, it took one source of stress off of her already full plate.
“I’ve been blessed with one thing after another,” she said of the assistance that has helped her through the past year.