Special to the Philanthropy Journal
By Amelia Currin
Angela Fusco never imagined herself as an international liaison and ambassador to some of the world’s most needy and underprivileged citizens. “Neither did I imagine that Little Phillip’s disability would impact the entire world in such a profound manner,” says the mother of three.
In November of 1991, Angela and Phil Fusco welcomed their son Phillip into the world. Soon after his birth, little Phillip was diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder called Prader-Willi syndrome. Prader-Willi syndrome occurs when the genes in a specific region of chromosome 15 are “deleted” or unable to function properly. His condition kept Phillip in and out of hospitals for a large portion of his young life, suffering from gastroparesis and kyphosis — a symptom of Prader-Willi that caused Phillip to “grow forward.” At the age of 20, he was sent to Shriners Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia where he spent four months in intensive care. Their doctors placed steel rods in his back to help correct Phillip’s abnormal growth.
When Phillip returned home after his painful stay in the hospital, he asked his parents if there was any way he could help “children who hurt.” Considering Phillip’s physical limitations, Angela and Phil began brainstorming. They came up with the idea of Phillip stuffing and giving away teddy bears. It was a way to help Phillip develop his fine motor skills while also fulfilling Phillip’s goal to provide a little bit of happiness to children in need. Phillip and his family prepared 37 bears with the goal of handing them out to local kids in need. When a nearby church heard of Phillip’s project, they reached out to the Fusco family and asked if they could take the bears to Belize on a mission trip where the church was building a playground for an orphanage. With that simple request, Phillip’s Love Bears was born.
Phillip sadly passed away in November 2020, but his legacy of love has continued to reach across the globe. As of 2022, Phillip’s Love Bears has sent over 22,000 bears to over 40 different countries. From Mexico to India, to Uganda and Kosovo, Phillip’s project has touched thousands of lives. The nonprofit has worked with Joni Eareckson Tada’s Joni and Friends Foundation, The Wonderland Camp for kids with disabilities in the Ozarks, and the Aikwangwon home for people with disabilities in South Korea. In conjunction with the Global Empowerment Mission (GEM), the nonprofit just recently had an order placed for 1,000 bears to be sent to Ukrainian refugees affected by the Russia-Ukraine war. “It doesn’t matter if we send one bear or a hundred,” Angela says. “It’s about helping people and bringing a sense of joy and relief into a world that is often filled with anxiety and suffering.”
Phillip’s Love Bears has blossomed into a global initiative, as the organization has now partnered with Unite The World with Africa and their Brave Widows Project based out of Tanzania. Phillip’s Love Bears has hired several of these widows to make the special shells that line the weighted therapy bears. Due to the stigma associated with Tanzanian widows whose husbands have died from HIV/AIDS, other illnesses, and accidents, the cultural stigma is severe and these families are left ostracized and economically devastated. Through Phillip’s Love Bears, the widows are paid fair market price for their time and effort, and their partnership is growing with the expansion of Phillip’s Love Bears’ African line of stuffed animals. “The goal is to continue and expand employment of marginalized artists across the globe.” Angela says.
This is where Angela Fusco envisions the creation of the Purposeful Bear Company. It will serve as the creative/marketing/manufacturing arm of Phillip’s Love Bears. These two nonprofits will work hand in hand, in a symbiotic capacity to bolster a sense of love and joy to people around the world who suffer from a variety of hardships. “Now after ten years of networking, we know so many people across the world,” Angela says. Inspired by their partnership with the Brave Widows, Angela decided to create a global marketplace that could buy and sell goods from underprivileged or marginalized creators like the Tanzanian women. This will include a line of products that will move past the bears. “We will buy the goods from the creators themselves, pay them fair market price, and sell the goods in our online marketplace. It’s a win-win situation. Whatever we make will go right back into the Purposeful Bear Company and Phillip’s Love Bears. Again, it’s all about helping people. We must remember the spirit of Little Phillip’s mission: to make the world feel loved.” Angela adds.
The Purposeful Bear company is still in its infancy. It will soon be granted its status as a nonprofit and Anglea hopes to launch the website in the coming weeks. “We are already working on products we will sell in the marketplace,” Anglea says. “Of course we have the bears, but we are currently partnering with a young artist in Tanzania. His artwork is phenomenal, but he doesn’t have the resources to create. The plan is to help fund his art so that I can act as a go between artist and buyer.” Likewise, Angela has also begun a partnership with a group of women in Uganda who make baskets. Jewelry, clothing, even chocolates may be added in the future.
With the addition of products like the Tanzanian art and Ugandan baskets, Angela believes that the diversification of the Purposeful Bear Company is important. The challenge facing her is to fill the current request for orders and find the balance between fundraising, profits, scalability, and sustainability. Angela and Phil project that almost 10,000 bears will be distributed globally by the end of 2022. This challenge seems overwhelming, but time and time again the generosity of others has pushed Phillip’s Love Bears forward. “Phillip’s medical challenges caused us to move away from the mindset of seeing Prader-Willi syndrome as a disability, much to the contrary, it is a syndrome of great ability. I am proud to continue providing for the hurts and needs around the world and it is fitting to the mission of my late son.”
To learn more about Phillip’s Love Bears, the Purposeful Bear Company, and how to support Angela and her mission, visit www.phillipslovebears.com or www.thepurposefulbearcompany.com.
Amelia Currin is an emerging writer from rural North Carolina. She holds a BA in Creative Writing from Sweet Briar College. When she isn’t writing, Amelia can be found at the barn teaching horseback riding lessons and sharing her passion for all things equine with kids and adults of all ages.