UNCG Bookstore Manager Brad Light likes to think his customers are always excited to shop at the campus store he manages at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, yet he was unprepared for the reaction he received from Ellory Branan when they met earlier this year. “She actually seemed quite emotional,” he recalls at meeting the young student, “and I couldn’t think what about the store had her quite so excited.” The merchandise that had so energized Branan, a student at UNCG, was the Britto Pop Plush stuffed animal collection the store carries, and it’s there that the story really begins.
The Britto Pop Plush animals are inspired by the work of Brazilian-American artist Romero Britto, whose iconographic pop art has been featured in everything from Pepsi and BMW advertisements to poster art for FIFA’s charity Football for Hope program. Branan became familiar with the artist’s work for an especially significant reason. “I was really excited – and happy too – when I saw the animals at my school bookstore,” Branan recalls, “because I could relate those images back to a memory, and I knew exactly where that came from.”
The memory they evoked was of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, where Branan had been treated in 1999. Romero Britta, who also serves as a benefactor and board member at St. Jude’s, painted the mural in the main lobby of the building, and his signature bold patterns, optimistic design and colorful palettes always inspired a reaction in Branan. “Britta’s mural always made me think that St. Jude’s was a place of hope, and that the hospital maybe isn’t always such a bad place to be,” she recalls.
But that’s hardly the end of the story. With a determination to make her time at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro as productive as possible, Branan channeled her experience at St. Jude’s into a commitment to help others by establishing the ‘Up ’til Dawn’ program on campus. The student-led, student-run philanthropic program helps raise awareness and funds for St. Jude’s, and since 1998, more than 370 schools have joined in the cause to raise more than $24 million for the hospital.
As Advocacy & Morale Chair/St. Jude Ambassador, Branan’s enthusiasm for the program is infectious. “Organizing letter writing drives are by far the most important work we do,” she explains. “In addition to providing treatment, St. Jude’s also assists families with transportation, lodging, and meals, so involving friends, families and the campus to participate in fundraising can really make a difference.” The ‘Up ‘til Dawn’ team also holds ‘Bald is Beautiful’ campaigns, in solidarity to children who lose their hair as a result of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and hosts a Celebration Night to inspire hope and raise funds for St. Jude’s.
No longer a patient herself, Branan still goes back to St. Jude’s to help with research work, and draws her enthusiasm and dedication from her own experience and, perhaps, from the colorful, huggable Britto plush animals. She is now the proud owner of a large Britto elephant (elephants are her particular weakness) and a small Britto bear. “It makes make me happy to think that from St. Jude’s to campuses around the country, they can represent their own special message of hope,” she says.
For more information about St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, visit www.stjude.org.
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