Love Your Melon: Hats and Hope

A simple classroom project brings hope – and hats – to hundreds of children with cancer. Love Your Melon kicks off its national tour this week bringing its mission to more than a dozen cities.

They met for the first time outside Jay Ebben’s ENTR 200 course on the second day of class. Zachary Quinn, who had missed the first day, asked classmate Brian Keller to fill him in on what he had missed. Keller described a class project – to create a business.

That meeting in Schulze Hall led to a partnership that created an organization which a year later has had an impact on countless families with children fighting cancer. Love Your Melon – a concept that was brainstormed in the car – started out as a simple hat-selling company. Today it has grown into much more.including a national tour that began Sunday, Jan. 12.

“There’s an on-ramp to I-94 in downtown Minneapolis that has some significance for us,” Quinn said. “We thought of most of our bright ideas on that ramp driving back to St. Paul after class.”

Love Your Melon operates on a buy-one-give-one model. For every hat that is sold, one is given to a child in a hospital. “We wanted to make a difference. To get the motivation we needed we had to do something we really believed in,” Keller said. “We both have ties with people who have passed away from cancer.”

According to Ebben, the scope of the project was to create a business with the goals of creating revenue by the end of the semester and also building a brand that could be the basis for a sustainable business. “Success is determined by how well students execute, not just sales but in how well they develop their brand,” Ebben said. “We’ve had students sell golf shirts, cigars, candy … a pretty wide variety of concepts.”

In the beginning, Keller and Quinn had big ambitions. Ebben encouraged them to be cautious. “We ordered 400 hats to start. Two hundred to sell and 200 to give away,” Keller said. “Our teacher said that was a risk and recommended something closer to 50. But we took that as a challenge.”

The partners sourced a manufacturer in Portland, Ore. Once the first order arrived, Keller’s mom and neighbors went to work sewing on the signature Love Your Melon labels. Hours after launching their online store, they earned their first sale.

The risk their instructor warned about paid off when the hats sold out in three days.

Quinn attributes the initial success to their ability to tell a story with their product, something they were able to accomplish through in-person sales events, social media and multimedia content. “The first day, we sat down and invited all of our friends to like our Facebook page,” he said. “We were so happy because we got 400 likes in one night, when our peers from class were getting 50 or 100.”

The buy-one-give-one concept meant that Love Your Melon customers were also donors. “Not everyone can donate a thousand dollars,” Quinn said. “By buying a hat, they’re connected with the giving process directly and they can hold in their hands exactly what they’re donating.”

While hat sales continued to grow, Keller and Quinn began to focus on working with local hospitals where they could fulfill the second half of Love Your Melon’s mission, to give hats to children in need. They were able to find a connection with a St. Thomas alumnus at Amplatz Children’s Hospital. Amplatz external relations officer Nick Engbloom ’08 heard the Love Your Melon pitch and was impressed.

Love Your Melon

Keller offers a hat to a patient at the University of Minnesota Amplatz Children’s Hospital. (Photo by Mark Brown)

“It takes courage for a couple of college sophomores to cold call someone like they did,” Engbloom said. “Zach and Brian knocked it out of the park.” With that introduction, the door was open for Love Your Melon to develop relationships that would help their business grow in new directions.

“You learn things from every person you meet. Every time you go to the hospital there are a few kids who will stick in your mind,” Keller said. “These are the most amazing people in the world. They’re not trying to ask for your help and that’s why we like giving it to them so much,” Quinn said.

As they handed out hats, the stories of the children they met inspired them to do more. One story they found most compelling also resonated with many people across the Twin Cities. In February 2013, they were introduced to Zach Sobiech – a high school student from Stillwater who had been diagnosed with terminal osteosarcoma.

“Zach was amazing,” Quinn said. “He instilled this life into everybody, even as he was dying. He is still inspiring people.” Sobiech gained recognition when his song “Clouds” and accompanying YouTube video shared a message of hope that attracted media attention from all over the world.

Love Your Melon’s connection with Sobiech was the inspiration for its first nonprofit (and non-hat) initiative, Cloud Rides – a program that raises funds to enable Love Your Melon recipients to take helicopter and airplane rides. Shortly after becoming the first Cloud Ride recipient, Sobiech died on May 20, 2013.

Dawson Parker is a 12-year-old from Wetumpka, Ala., who endured a bone marrow transplant in March. According to his father, Bob, his son kept mostly to himself at Amplatz. But a visit from Quinn brought a smile to the younger Parker’s face. “Zach visited his room handing out hats and asked, ‘How’d you like to go up in a helicopter?’ His eyes lit right up,” said Bob, who added that Dawson loves flight and flies model airplanes.

On the day of his Cloud Ride, Dawson was excited. “He didn’t say a lot, but it really made his day. He loved it,” Bob said. “That made him feel like a child again.”

“Dawson never talked to any of his nurses. He’s been there for six months and he doesn’t like it,” Quinn said. “But he talks to us and smiles.”

In addition to the Cloud Rides, Love Your Melon has partnered with the nonprofit Keys 4/4 Kids for The Ellen Project, which brings art and music programs to children in the hospital. During the summer, the initiative brought the band Cloud Cult to Amplatz for a concert and a piano painting event.

Both nonprofit initiatives are reflective of the Love Your Melon mission to brighten the lives of children, which, according to Engbloom, has a very real effect on the healing process. “Amplatz provides a number of happy distractions to help kids stay upbeat while they’re going through treatment,” Engbloom said. “These changes in their normal days have helped them heal at a faster rate – 18 percent faster.”

Love Your Melon

Signature Love Your Melon labels are stitched to every hat. (Photo by Mark Brown)

Love Your Melon has begun expanding beyond Minnesota, with partnerships at hospitals in San Diego, Denver and Albuquerque, and hat sales as far away as Germany; however, maintaining the organization’s local roots is important to Keller and Quinn. “The focus is still on this area. We’ve got a lot more to do with this community,” Quinn said.

The local community is feeling the Love Your Melon impact. In its first eight months, the organization gave away more than 1,700 hats at Amplatz, the Mayo Clinic and Children’s Minneapolis. It earned $35,000 in revenue from in-person sales and $15,000 online. It also raised $3,000 for the Zach Sobiech Osteosarcoma Fund through the sale of special Sobiech-branded merchandise.

On Oct. 22, Love Your Melon celebrated its one-year anniversary. Love Your Melon Day was declared not only by St. Thomas President Julie Sullivan but also by Gov. Mark Dayton and mayors R.T. Rybak of Minneapolis and Chris Coleman of St. Paul. To help raise awareness, Quinn and Keller parked a bus on John P. Monahan Plaza near the Anderson Student Center and offered free hats to anyone who shaved their head in a show of support for children battling cancer. Quinn himself went under the clippers live on WCCO’s noon news broadcast.

During the event, a small plane circled campus towing a long banner that read, “” Riding in the plane was 12-year-old Love Your Melon Cloud Rides recipient Richard Lange. By the end of the day, 71 heads had been shaved, 350 hats were sold, and $5,000 was raised for Love Your Melon’s Cloud Rides Fund.

Keller, who also shaved his head, said the organization’s first year went by fast; but looking back it had been quite a journey as well. “All the long nights paid off,” he said, also noting how he was humbled by how his and Quinn’s idea brought so many people together.

The community support of Love Your Melon Day motivated the partners to recreate the event on a national level. After announcing its official classification as a nonprofit 501 (c)(3) organization, the Love Your Melon team made plans for its first national tour.

The team outfitted a bus with a mobile barbershop and plans to host head shave events on college campuses across the country. While on tour, they hope to sell 2,500 hats and raise $50,000 to support and create therapeutic treatment programs for children’s hospitals. In addition, they hope to give away 2,500 hats to children in such cities as New York, Boston, Chicago, New Orleans and St. Louis to name a few.

The Love Your Melon tour will include stops in more than a dozen cities, beginning with Madison, Wi., on Jan. 12. "I want to wish Zach and Brian all the best as they embark on their Love Your Melon tour," President Julie Sullivan said. "St. Thomas is incredibly proud of them and how an idea they developed for an entrepreneurship class project has had such a positive impact on the lives of thousands of children who are fighting cancer. Zach and Brian are truly living out St. Thomas' mission to advance the common good." Sullivan thanked Bill Kirchgessner, director of branding and design in University Relations, for his efforts to assist the Love Your Melon crew in making sure the bus was ready for the long road trip and in outfitting them in appropriate St. Thomas apparel.

In this video, Keller and Quinn talk about their inspiration for the tour.

“In the beginning we both had a sense that this could go somewhere,” Keller said. “It’s been a good relationship and friendship.”

Keep track of the Love Your Melon tour by following the organization on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Quinn and Keller recently appeared on KARE 11 to talk about the tour.