On a brisk winter morning at a private airfield in Tomball, Texas, the whirring of helicopter rotor blades sent a gust of wind toward a resolute band of University of Houston (UH) students. Clad in superhero costumes—with capes and hair billowing in the wind—and insulated by matching knit beanies featuring the words, “Love Your Melon,” they waved on the helicopter’s ascent. As the blades tilted forward for takeoff and the cockpit became visible, Jacob, a pediatric cancer patient battling leukemia, popped into view. Previously stoic and slightly withdrawn, a faint smirk crept across the corners of his lips before settling into a broad, happy grin. Cheering below as the helicopter receded into a single point on the horizon, the members of UH’s Love Your Melon Campus Crew had accomplished their mission: to buoy Jacob’s spirits and put a smile on his face.
Hoping to provide a much-needed reprieve for pediatric patients battling through treatment, these superhero adventures—which are possible through donations as well as profits from merchandise sales—take children to the clouds, the high seas and the open road in the form of helicopter, plane, boat and limo rides. It’s all part of the mission of Love Your Melon, an apparel brand run by college students across the country who are working to give a hat to every child battling cancer in America. To date, Campus Crew members have donated over 51,000 beanies, including more than 33,000 in 2015 alone.
“That’s what really attracted me to Campus Crew—their core mission of donating hats to children battling cancer,” said Samantha Russell, a UH student and founder of UH’s Campus Crew. “It creates such a big impact on their day, even though it’s just a hat. They really appreciate you going into their hospital room or visiting them at home. Letting them know that someone’s thinking about them and cares about them is invaluable.”
But as Russell explained, Love Your Melon is about much more than just the hats. In communities across the country, an ever-expanding network of student crew members—known as “ambassadors”—raise awareness for childhood cancer through sales, volunteer work, and other initiatives such as the superhero adventures. More than 11,000 college students at over 736 schools nationwide have signed on as ambassadors.
“It’s very easy for someone to send out hats to hospitals without having that personalized touch,” said Alex Meysman, event director for Love Your Melon. “We focus on personally donating those hats to children—all while having our ambassadors dressed up in superhero costumes. We’ll send hats to our ambassadors who will bring them to hospitals, but we’ll also set up household visits if the child is feeling well enough to leave, and even throw them a party.
“It’s all about spending time with them and getting to know who these children—these ‘real superheroes,’ as our ambassadors call them—are,” he added. “They get to learn so much, and the overarching mission and purpose of Love Your Melon is really to enable these students to engage with their communities.”
Right before the start of the 2015 academic year, Russell found herself doing what any college student might at 8:30 at night—scrolling through Facebook. A small ad featuring a logo for Love Your Melon immediately caught her eye.
“At first, I thought, ‘What does that even mean?’” said Russell. “I thought it was going to be about breast cancer awareness—like, ‘love your melons’—but it wasn’t. I went to the web site and thought, ‘Wow, this is incredible!’ I read everything on there, and that same night, I submitted the application. By 10:30 p.m., I got a response that essentially said, ‘Yes, go ahead! If you can find 10 people, you can create a crew.’”
After amassing an army of friends and supporters, Russell and her classmates officially launched the UH Campus Crew in August 2015. In the months that followed, they have visited Ronald McDonald House (RMH) Houston—dressed as superheroes, of course—to hand out hats, take photos and create crafts with the children staying there; traveled to The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center on multiple occasions to donate beanies and engage with patients; and participated in a continuous stream of weekly online challenges to earn prizes like Jacob’s superhero adventure helicopter ride.
“That’s what we’re trying to show,” Meysman said. “We’ll still provide the hats themselves, and if you want to provide them for apparel reasons, that’s great. But the other side of that hat is if you see someone wearing one, you’re going to think about all of the other things that Love Your Melon is doing. Maybe it was donated to the person that you’re seeing; maybe it was distributed as part of a superhero adventure. That’s the story that each hat will tell, and it’s a narrative that people are slowly picking up on and starting to understand.”
More than 40,000 children undergo treatment for cancer each year. According to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, therapeutic forms of treatment such as the ones Love Your Melon are working to create may have numerous health benefits for patients, ranging from pain relief to strengthening the immune system.
“Any time we have a group like Love Your Melon come in, it’s an opportunity for patients to have their minds taken off the hospital environment,” said Lauren E. Shinn, program manager for The Children’s Cancer Hospital at MD Anderson Cancer Center. “One of our goals as a hospital is to provide a normal childhood experience, as much as possible. That’s why it’s great to have groups like Love Your Melon come in, so they can provide those opportunities for kids to be kids and to have experiences where they can take a moment to forget about what’s going on and just have fun.”
“A little lifting of spirits is always good,” added Colleen Dillahunty, family activities coordinator at RMH Houston. “Part of what we do here is give options for families to have a time to not have to think about what’s going on with their kids in terms of medical issues. It’s really giving them a break from that medical jargon that comes to dominate their lives. Having Love Your Melon here was really nice.”
That break is well deserved for patients like Jacob, who was diagnosed with a lymphoblastic leukemia—a rare and aggressive form of cancer—over a year ago. While Jacob’s cancer is now in remission, the task of recruiting others in the fight against childhood cancer remains as essential as ever. It might just start with something as small as a knit hat and a smile.
“We hope that events like these provide a positive experience for pediatric cancer patients to talk about,” Russell said. “When they’re asked, ‘How was your day?’ rather than having to respond with, ‘I got chemotherapy treatment,’ instead, they can say, ‘Oh! Well, we had superheroes visit us, and we got to make bracelets and hats, and we got to laugh.’ It’s something as simple as providing a positive experience for them as they’re going through their treatments and doctor visits. All of that happiness is powerful, and we want to help them create something that will stay with them.”